Canada

Residential school survivors fear network end

Survivors of abuse at residential schools are fearing the end of federal funding on March 31 for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a nationwide network of community-based healing initiatives.

Survivors of abuse at residential schools are fearing the end of federal funding on March 31 for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a nationwide network of community-based healing initiatives.

The federal government did not renew its funding for the foundation (AHF), which serves 134 community-based healing programs.

Instead, the government has committed $65.9 million over two years for mental health and emotional abuse support services for former residential school students and their families. The funding will support programs run by Health Canada.

That might not be enough for Ben Pratt, 52, who was sexually abused as a teenager when he attended the residential school on the George Gordon First Nation, about 100 kilometres northeast of Regina.

Pratt is preparing to testify in the summer before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-ordered commission. Its mandate is "to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools," according to the commission's website.

"When I first started talking about the sexual abuse I went through, I used to urinate on myself," Pratt told CBC News.

Now, facing the prospect of testifying before the commission without support of the AHF, "there is a lot of fear in it," Pratt said. ""The more I talk about it, the better I feel inside."

His fear is shared by commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair, who worries a loss of programming will cause survivors to hold back.

"We felt the aboriginal healing foundation's funding should be continued at least for the term of our commission," Murray said.

But Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl says the AHF has run its course, and new programs will ensure residential school survivors are supported during and after the commission. The commission's offices open officially on April 8.

A history of abuse

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in more than 130 residential schools across Canada from the late 1870s until the mid-1970s. The schools were government-funded and meant to prevent parents from being involved in the "intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of aboriginal children," according to the commission.

Many students were forbidden to speak their native language or practise their culture at the school, which were run by churches. Many were also physically, sexually and psychologically abused.

The AHF was established in 1998 with a $350-million grant from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) to help former students who were physically or sexually abused in the residential school system. The Ottawa-based non-profit foundation is run entirely by aboriginal people.

AHF and aboriginal communities began rallying in October, when they learned INAC would be reviewing funding for the program.

Their hopes faded on March 4, when the Conservatives' budget was officially released.

Casts shadow on good work: AHF head

While it's good the budget includes some funding for mental health work, it otherwise casts a shadow "over the good and effective work being done in aboriginal communities, by aboriginal people, to address the destructive residential school legacy," AHF president Georges Erasmus said on March 5.

The funding cuts have shaken aboriginal communities across Canada.

In Nunavut, members of the legislative assembly unanimously voted on Thursday to press the federal government to continue funding the foundation.

But more than 3,115 kilometres away, the interim director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal is still hoping her shelter's petition might do something to sway Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"It's sad, because it's [been] 10 years of gaining the trust of women, and we got them believing that there's a better way of life for them, and now we might not be able to support them, or continue to do things that we've been able to do up until now," Lou Ann Stacey told CBC News.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of the story referred to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as "a government-established program." In fact, it is a court-ordered commission.
    Mar 22, 2010 12:06 PM ET

now