The National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) has been granted special consultative status at the United Nations, helping further the cause of urban Aboriginals in Canada and, in turn, presenting the friendship centre model to an international audience.

On July 22, NAFC learned it had received United Nations Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) special consultative status through the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC). The new status allows NAFC to actively engage with ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies as well as with the UN Secretariat, and its programs, funds and agencies.

In layman’s terms, according to the NAFC’s Executive Director, Peter Dinsdale, this means that the NGO will have the ability to formally submit briefings and reports, an achievement built on its active participation at the UN over the past five years. Dinsdale said that they would also have opportunities to build influence within the UN when it comes to Indigenous issues. Their goal of course is to try to position urban Aboriginal issues internationally.

The NAFC will now be able to designate official representatives to the UN headquarters in New York as well as offices in Geneva and Vienna and to participate in the events and activities of the UN.

However, Dinsdale noted that NAFC’s interest lies specifically in Indigenous issues both domestically and abroad and that they would be particularly focused on specific aspects of the UN such as the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The organization also does not have the budget to travel to each of the UN meetings so they will be selective with their focus.

Dinsdale said that he is excited about the new status because it removes a lot of the restrictions that the NGO had felt previously when it came to Canada’s treatment of urban Aboriginals.

“When Canada’s universal periodic review came up on their human rights record, NGOs with special consultative status had the ability to make interventions and formally submit reports that were part of the official record of Canada’s human rights records. Because we did not have Special Consultative Status, we could not do that,” said Dinsdale.

One example of their new power would be that within the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, NAFC can now submit papers that describe the challenges they are seeing to a much broader audience. This, in turn, will allow for a greater impact of their work. By informing other international delegates and governments about their activities, commenting on Canada’s responses, encouraging certain effective approaches for Aboriginal peoples and being an active partner at the UN, NAFC will be able to put more pressure on the federal government to be more responsive to Canada’s urban Aboriginals.

NAFC represents 99 core-funded and 15 non-core funded friendship centres, as well as 7 Provincial Territorial Associations across Canada, helping them to provide a wide variety of services to urban Aboriginals and Aboriginals coming through urban areas. But they have not received an increase in core funding since the mid 1990s. As a result, many friendship centres are faced without the means of increasing staff salaries, with service cutbacks and having to seek out funding elsewhere to keep their operations afloat. Canada’s friendship centres are funded through the Department of Canadian Heritage.

While there are organizations, such as the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis National Council, that lobby for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, Dinsdale said that the plight of urban Aboriginals often gets lost among the broader issues facing First Nations.

According to Dinsdale, the Conservative government has not been receptive to the NAFC’s pleas for increased funding or recommendations when it comes to urban Aboriginals. He is uncertain as to whether their new status will give them any more weight with the government.

“I do not expect to promptly be welcomed in [by Canada], but that is fine. And that maybe is not even our goal at the outset. The recommendation from last year’s UN Permanent Forum was that the Government of Canada work with us on urban Aboriginal issues and so I certainly don’t anticipate that the doors are suddenly just going to open up. But, I think that this is just another quiver in our arrow as it were in that we have this stamp of approval and we will continue to use it and push forward,” said Dinsdale.