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Aboriginal leaders, PM meet following healing foundation debate

Aboriginal leaders from across the country are meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday. The meeting follows an emergency debate in the House of Commons to make their case for the reinstatement of funds to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

Aboriginal leaders from across the country are meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Wednesday.

There's no confirmation as to what's on the agenda.

However the meeting follows an emergency debate in the House of Commons Tuesday evening about funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which runs out March 31st.

"One of the things that was highlighted last night is that the Aboriginal Healing Foundation right now is not a dead issue — that the budget is still on the table, it still has to be passed," said Qikiqtani Inuit Association president Okalik Eegeesiak, who was in Ottawa for Tuesday's debate.    

"So we still have some room to manoeuvre until the budget is passed," said Eegeesiak.

The foundation was established in 1998 with a $350-million grant from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to help former students who were physically or sexually abused in the residential school system.

It gives money to more than 130 groups and initiatives across the country, including women's shelters and the Yukon-based Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools. It also funds 12 different projects in Nunavut that support former residential school students.

Churchill, Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton is spearheading a national petition asking Ottawa to extend funding for the healing foundation. She says the government has apologized for past residential school policies and is committed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that alone is not enough.

"The reality is that without the AHF, that apology and the commitment to reconciliation lose their foundation," she said. 

"The AHF is the only program targeted to communities and has that model of self government where communities themselves and not bureaucrats in Ottawa or in our capital cities decide how they can heal, and that is what the crying shame will be if the AHF is lost," she added.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said last week that the foundation's funding was never meant to last forever.

Ottawa has said that healing funds will be directed to Health Canada, but aboriginal leaders say Health Canada programs are not as effective.

During Tuesday's debate,  Strahl said Ashton should not conclude that cutting the healing foundation money means the end of support for aboriginal people.

"I don't want her to paint the picture or leave the impression that there are no services available," said Strahl. "There's an intention here … to continue services to the Indian residential school survivors. It's important to this government and it's important to carry this message to aboriginal people across the country."