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Federal cuts threaten Fort Nelson Friendship Society

Did the Federal government "unfriend" B.C.

Did the Federal government "unfriend" B.C.'s Friendship Centres?

Ottawa turned the faucet off on the Fort Nelson Friendship Society's core funding in March, and Eric Ashdown, president of the Society, said the impact on the community could be drastic.

The decision has prompted some in this northern municipality to question whether the central government's new focus on "economic participation" was coming at the expense of community health.

"Any funding cuts mean we will have a more difficult time to provide the services that we do provide to the community, which are extensive and wide-reaching," Ashdown said. "It's going to be detrimental to the community, not only aboriginal people. We are a multicultural organization."

On Feb. 6, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said it would consolidate four programs (Young Canada Works for Aboriginal Urban Youth, Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program, Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth and Urban Aboriginal Strategy) into two, Urban Partnerships and Community Capacity Support. The changes went into effect March 31.

The government said funding "remains constant." However, the Society said that's not the case.

The funding cuts put the programs that are run out of the Fort Nelson Friendship Society in jeopardy, Ashdown said, "because if we can't keep this building open, where are they going to go? They're gone."

The changes to the funding structure, according to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, represent a "streamlined approach, which is focused on increasing the participation of urban aboriginal people in the economy."

The impact was felt immediately. Where a receptionist, bookkeeper and an executive director had been getting paid, now only the bookkeeper is getting compensated. The receptionist position has been eliminated.

The core funding from the Federal government partially paid for those three positions. The rest of their funding came from other sources, such as Northern Health and some provincial ministries. Only the funding from the Federal government is impacted, and Ashdown couldn't say what percentage of the overall budget was affected.

"To date, we are seeing nothing," said Ashdown.

He added that there are indications that the Fort Nelson Friendship Society may be getting its historical funding reinstated. But so far that hasn't happened.

Services run out of the Fort Nelson Friendship Society include a mental health and addictions counsellor, a Stop the Violence counsellor, women's outreach services, HIV/AIDS outreach, the Women's Transition House, the Father Pollut homeless shelter, a youth centre and an Elders Program. It also operates a food bank.

"A lot of the programs that we're delivering are programs that the government used to deliver, but we're doing it now, so when they cut back the funding, I don't know what they're thinking," he said.

There are also implications for the burgeoning energy industry, Ashdown said.

"We get a lot of people who come out of the natural gas sector," said Ashdown. "There's people up here, and their families are at home, and they need to access our services on an ongoing basis.

"If it wasn't for us, there would be a lot more substance abuse problems, domestic violence, people without the necessities of life."

There are 26 Friendship Centres in B.C. In Fort Nelson, just over 20,000 people came through the doors for the local Friendship Society's programs in 2013.

"There are many success stories that have come out of the Friendship Centre," said Ashdown. "Because of our programs, many people who were a liability to the community and the province are now in the work force and are an asset and are making their own way, relieving the system of a huge financial burden."