Emergency Debate to save the Aboriginal Healing Foundation

The NDP called an emergency debate to reinstate funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation(AHF) before it runs out on March 31. The AHF delivers 135 projects across Canada to support tens of thousands of residential school survivors. Without alerting the AHF, the Conservative government did not include funding for the Foundation in the 2010 federal budget tabled on March 4th.

Aboriginal Healing Foundation

MARCH 30, 2010

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):

I am very glad to be rising in the House tonight, even at this late hour, to participate in this emergency debate. The first thing I would like to do is to thank the member for Churchill who applied for this emergency debate, which was granted by the Speaker, and to thank her for bringing this forward so that we could actually participate in this really critical discussion tonight about what is going to happen to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

When the member for Churchill led off the debate at the beginning of the evening, I remember her speaking about the fact that she was not in the House when the historic apology took place on June 11, 2008. I am sure she, like others across the country, was probably in her community with many people who were witnessing that historic occasion.

I remember being here in the House that day. It was a beautiful sunny day. People were gathered outside. I remember hearing the apology. I remember hearing the first nations representatives who came on the floor of the House and spoke. I remember phoning back to my riding of Vancouver East that night and talking to people in the downtown east side who had gathered at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre at Hastings and Commercial.

I remember feeling what they had gone through to some extent. I was not there. I was here. However in talking to people, I heard about the pain that people went through listening to that apology, and the grief, the sense of loss, anguish and trauma that it brought forward.

I also heard from people that they had a sense of hope about what that apology meant. By the fact that it was given by the Prime Minister, the Government of Canada and all parties, it carried this historic weight of something very important.

It is ironic that not quite two years later we are back in this House debating, in an emergency situation, whether or not the Aboriginal Healing Foundation will be able to continue. In fact, it will not be able to continue under the current state of affairs because of the loss of funding.

It is further ironic because the day its funding ends will also be the 50th anniversary of voting rights being extended to aboriginal people in this country.
What is going on here feels totally wrong. We have heard the arguments from the government that all these other programs are going to continue. I have listened to people in my community, people like Jerry Adams who is a very wonderful aboriginal leader in East Vancouver from the Circle of Eagles. He wants to know how anybody can open the doors of pain and not follow up with a healing plan to make it better for the families involved, and how the 400-plus page study that was given to the government about the importance of helping the residential school survivors can be of no importance now.

He went on to say other things as well, but it just struck me that he really has hit the chord there. When we look at the evaluation of community-based healing initiatives supported through the Aboriginal Healing Foundation that was done not very long ago, on December 7, 2009, we see it is a very strong and uplifting evaluation.

The evaluation found that the programs delivered through AHF are cost-effective, in demand, successful in contributing to the “increased self-esteem and pride”, to the achievement of higher education and employment and to prevention of suicide among survivors of residential schools, and more recently in the broader aboriginal community.

It seems really quite incredible that, with the apology that happened not quite two years ago and this kind of program evaluation, we are now in a place where this is all going to shut down.

How many times has this happened before? I was just looking back at my own files of letters we have written.

Whether it is about funding that is potentially being lost for the National Association of Friendship Centres and letters that were written to the ministers, whether it is the Lu’ma Native Housing Society and the fact that they were ready to close their doors and lay off staff because the government would not commit to renew their funding under the national homelessness initiative, whether it was letters we wrote in February of this year to Minister of State for the Status of Women about the fact that the Sisters in Spirit from the Native Women’s Association of Canada were left in limbo over their funding, or whether it was that the more than 130 groups delivering these programs through the AHF had to find out through the tabling of the budget, on February 4, that their funding would not be renewed by the end of month, again we have to write another letter.

We keep coming back to this place. It challenges the credibility of that apology. This is why we are now facing such a serious situation in terms of what is happening to aboriginal people across the country and the fact that they are living in appalling conditions.

I find it difficult to talk in the community about this place, the House of Commons, the Canadian Parliament. We all talk about the commitment to what needs to be done. We raise it in question period and we hear about the commitments from the government. Yet we keep coming back to funding losses, cuts and programs that are going to be discontinued, even when they are shown to be successful.

It seriously undermines the belief of not only aboriginal people, but all Canadians in the credibility of their government standing for what it believes in, what it says it is willing to put forward. It stretches the credibility and undermines the legitimacy of the work we do when these promises get broken year after year.

I represent the community of Vancouver East, which includes Downtown Eastside. I have seen first-hand the impact of colonialism, the oppression of aboriginal people through the residential schools system. I have seen the devastation it has had on lives of people, successive generations and the community as a whole.

Each year I participate in the missing women’s march on the Downtown Eastside. The 19th annual missing women’s march was held on February 14. Many women have gone missing and are presumed murdered, many of them aboriginal.

The whole trauma and horror of what has taken place has manifested in this community. There is an impact on people’s lives, whether it is through addiction, homelessness, deepening poverty that is made worse by serious cuts in programs, services and income support. Many people in my community live with that and try to survive day by day. I, as their representative, and other representatives try to deal with that.

Even with that kind of tragedy, I have also seen incredibly powerful initiatives come out of the community. For example, right now at the National Arts Centre is a very amazing play called Where the Blood Mixes, which speaks about the residential schools experience. We are seeing incredible creative expression as people try to engage in a healing process and speak to the broader Canadian society about what has taken place.

I have seen organizations, such as Vancouver Native Health Society, the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society or the women’s centre, that have taken this issue on and have provided support and services to people. People like Gladys Radek or Bernie Williams walked 4,000 kilometres across Canada in a Walk4Justice to raise awareness about the missing and murdered women.

Incredible expressions come out of the community of healing, of reconciliation and of people claiming their place and voice. The very least we can do is ensure the Aboriginal Healing Foundation can continue its mandate to provide the resources at the grassroots to the amazing projects that have taken place across the country.

We either get this or we do not. Either we follow through on these commitments or we have betrayed the aboriginal people of our country. That is a very serious question for the government to consider. I am glad we have had this debate tonight. We hope the government will reflect on this and restore the funding that is needed.

Ms. Libby Davies:
Mr. Speaker, that was not really a question. It was a comment. I guess the question I have is this. What will come of it? That is what is going to be left hanging in this room tonight as we approach midnight.

We have had some fine talk. The member said that some of it was high and low. Whatever it was, we had this debate. What will the consequence of that be? What are our party and other members have said tonight is the government has to rethink its position. It has to see the support for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. It has to recognize the evaluation that was done has real meaning and real weight.

It is never too late to say that a second opinion is okay, or that a different decision is okay. Maybe a good decision to continue the work of the foundation will come out of this debate. I think all members of the House would applaud that.

Ms. Libby Davies:
Mr. Speaker, I want to know whether Healing Our Spirit BC Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Society in east Vancouver, will be able to continue its work. That is as real as it is. It is doing incredible work. It is working with people. It has the expertise, the programs and the support in the community. However, as of tomorrow, it will be unable to do that work.

I know this issue is not going to go away. I know the member knows that and we will continue to raise it. However, there is an opportunity here for the government to rethink its position, do the right thing and ensure that the mandate, funding and work of this foundation continues.