British Columbia

Indigenous friendship centres hit hard by skyrocketing requests for help, advocate says

Eighteen of 25 B.C. friendship centres are now closed due to concerns about COVID-19, including those in Vancouver and in Surrey. But requests for services continue by phone and online, rising by 200 per cent since the pandemic was declared.

People who don't usually use their services are now asking for assistance

COVID-19 concerns have closed friendship centres in Vancouver and Surrey, but clients are asking for help online and by phone. (WAWMEESH HAMILTON/CBC)

Friendship Centres across Canada are receiving $3.75 million from Ottawa to deal with COVID-19, but B.C. branches say that's not enough to meet demand that's grown 200 per cent during the pandemic.

Eighteen of those 25 centres in towns and cities across the province are now closed due to concerns about the spread of the virus, including facilities in Vancouver and in Surrey. But their services are still in demand by phone and online, says the head of  the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres.

"We're devastated that we can't help more than we can. There's so much ask," Leslie Varley told CBC's On The Coast Wednesday.

It's not enough

Friendship centres vary in the services they offer, but they provide everything from referrals for shelter and employment to addictions counselling and hot lunches. 

B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres executive director Leslie Varley says they can't keep up with clients' needs. (CBC The Sunday Edition)

Centres are now getting new requests from Indigenous people who don't normally access their services, including people who are laid off from their jobs, or who live in nearby towns or First Nations communities.

"The inequities people are experiencing just become stronger," Varley said. "They're not going to be alleviated by this during COVID-19 or by any of the funding that we're receiving — it's going to be increased.

"The $3.75 million from Ottawa will be shared across the country. In B.C., that will amount to approximately $20,000 per friendship centre, she says, and that's not enough to meet the growing demand.

"We've probably easily incurred that much debt already in terms of providing the extra supports." 

We need food

The biggest need is food, says Varley. Some First Nations are distributing food boxes to on-reserve members, leaving urban Indigenous people on their own. 

COVID-19 concerns have closed the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

"They need help. They're hungry. They need money for food and now there's no food to buy in some places," she said.

Requests for domestic violence support have doubled, she says. And there's a growing number of requests for help with children who have no means to access online school lessons.

More help on the way, governments say

Varley says she's tried to get help from private foundations as well as from the provincial government.

Provincial officials have made several inquiries about the centre's needs since the pandemic was declared, but it hasn't resulted in action or extra funding, Varley said. 

"Yesterday they were asking us again what we need," she said. "The need is the same as I identified last last week, only now it's worse."

The funding allocated for regional, urban, and off-reserve Indigenous organizations is just a start.- Indigenous Services Canada official

B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser said in an email to CBC that the province is immediately advancing funds from its annual  allocation to friendship centres to support them during the pandemic. 

A spokesperson from federal Indigenous Services Canada told CBC in an email that the $3.75 million is an initial instalment and that there is more to come.

"We want to be clear — the funding allocated for regional, urban, and off-reserve Indigenous organizations is just a start," the official said. "We know more support will be needed, and we are actively working to identify and deliver the supports and to make sure no Indigenous community is left behind."