It may not sound like much money, but for the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth program in Smithers, $75,000 is everything.
“It’s closed our doors,” Executive Director of the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre Annette Morgan said of a federal government decision to freeze funds for the national CCAY program.
“It’s the only aboriginal youth service we have in our community.
The CCAY program in Smithers, opened its door eight years ago, offering a variety of services to local aboriginal youth, all with the goal of promoting cultural and community engagement for youths aged 10 – 24, Morgan, who is also president of the B.C. association of aboriginal friendship centres, explained.
The CCAY program was doubly important in Smithers, Morgan said, because unlike larger centres, Smithers does not have other agencies such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the YMCA which could provide alternate services for the youth affected by the current funding freeze.
In Smithers, the CCAY program is a drop in service that could be accessed by 300 – 500 youths every year.
An important part of the Smithers CCAY program was a referral system for addictions services across the province.
“It’s a safe, age-appropriate service which makes it unique,” Morgan said.
Rather than entering a traditional addiction service, the CCAY referral system has youth with addictions meet with youth counselors they already have a relationship with.
“They [youth with addictions] go to places that they trust,” Morgan said.
“They’ll go through addiction services, but they have a support network guiding them,” Morgan said.
The funding freeze, which took effect immediately, also means the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre has to layoff two youth workers.
One youth worker has been with the society for many years and has developed a special rapport with the youth in the CCAY program and other programs offered by the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre.
“He’s an incredible person,” Morgan said.
“For an agency such as ours, in a community like Smithers to lose such a person in a lead position is very upsetting not only for the agency but for the youth.
“He’s a wonderful role model.
The second worker also played an important role with the youth in the CCAY program, Morgan said.
“They’re both well known by the youth,” she said.
“For the youth not to have them there is very upsetting, it’s devastating for them.”
The federal government, Morgan said, advised the CCAY they froze the funding because the program didn’t promote job creation.
Morgan took exception to that sort of reasoning, countering the CCAY promotes a strong and sustainable workforce, a message she said that obviously needs to be delivered with a louder voice.
“The CCAY program makes sure Aboriginal youth are connecting with the community,” Morgan said.
“When non-profit and social service groups support youth, the youth will later return as volunteers in one form or another.
“In the end, these youths become successful members of our community.”
The job losses resulting from the funding freeze are not limited to Smithers.
“Job losses will result throughout friendship centres across the country.
Thousands of young Aboriginals will not have an opportunity to have the experience this year that would help them to make positive decisions for their futures,” National Association of Friendship Centres President, Vera Pawis-Tabobondung said in a press release.
Pawis-Tabobondung explained the federal government advised the CCAY the funding freeze was a temporary measure to allow time for the revision of the program’s terms and conditions so that they better reflect the government’s goals.
Morgan said staff at the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre are already exploring alternate strategies to better align the CCAY programming with government priorities, particularly job creation and they are also seeking alternate sources of funding.
Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in B.C, Morgan said and the number of Aboriginals entering the labour force is expected to double in the next decade.