Residential school healing fund set to end as First Nations leaders say demand for services growing

The future of a B.C. society established to provide support to residential school survivors is in limbo as a health fund born of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is set to run out in March 2021. 

Fund was part of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement

People march in remembrance of residential school victims and survivors on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. In all, about 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The future of a B.C. society established to provide support to residential school survivors is in limbo as a health fund born of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is set to run out in March 2021. 

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society is one of 135 organizations across the country that is financially supported through the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program.

First Nations leadership have been calling for a renewed funding commitment from the federal government but there's been no such commitment as of yet. 

Canada was compelled to contribute $125 million toward a healing fund as part of the residential schools settlement agreement. The fund was endowed to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to address "the legacy of harms suffered at Indian Residential Schools including the intergenerational effects." 

Implementation of the residential school settlement agreement began in 2007 and included the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the common experience payment and the independent assessment process.

The healing fund was seen as an essential piece of the settlement agreement to support survivors and their families with culturally safe and trauma-informed care.

Residential school survivors walking to the opening ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday September 18, 2013. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Today the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society has a team of about 25 people working out of eight offices across B.C. The team is a mix of health support workers, cultural support providers and has also expanded to include four MMIWG co-ordinators. 

Angela White, executive director of the society, has known for years the funds from the settlement agreement were expiring. 

The federal government renewed funding for the health support program for three years in Budget 2018 for a total of $248.6 million.

With that funding now set to expire, White said "our question now is — is there going to be a transition? What's that transition going to look like?" 

Without a funding renewal — or equivalent source of funds — the society will cease to exist. The push for renewed funding isn't about money, she said. 

"It's about the people and healing them." 

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White said the scope of work taken on by support workers has evolved over the years. Her team's work ranges from on-demand crisis response to one-on-one counselling to public education in areas like the impacts of residential schools.

Demand for their services has only been growing. 

Intersecting traumatic experiences 

Much of that growth is based on the intersecting traumas stemming from the residential schools, Sixties Scoop, child welfare system, day schools and the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

The Assembly of First Nations recently published a report advocating for the continuation of the fund.

"There is no predetermined timeframe for healing and recovery from manufactured trauma," the report stated.

"The Assembly of First Nations is coming together with survivors, their families, support workers and community organizations to advocate for the continuation of the program and the sustained healing of survivors."

The report included statistics to illustrate the demand for the programming from the fund, looking at a seven-year period. 

It found, "Almost 900,000 survivors and their families have reached out for cultural and emotional support some 5.8 million times… And more than 66,000 survivors and families have participated in almost 500,000 counselling sessions to March 31, 2019." 

Residential school survivors march into the opening ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday September 18, 2013. (The Canadian Press)

Ardythe Wilson is part of a three-person team that provides health support through the fund to Gitxsan communities in northern B.C. 

"The funding is really negligible in terms of the healing that has to get done," she said.

"We have some survivors who are survivors of the Sixties Scoop, Indian day school, [residential schools], all together. Can you imagine all those compounded layers of trauma?" 

She said First Nations need well-resourced, long-term funding commitments to support comprehensive healing programs. 

"There's at least four generations of survivors that we're dealing with, and trauma, that we're dealing with right now."

B.C. received $9M annually from fund

Richard Jock, interim CEO of B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority, said in the last fiscal year B.C.'s share of the health support fund amounted to about $9 million. 

Without this funding he said there will be a huge hole in services delivered across the province.

"I believe that leaving it, or interrupting it, or stopping it at this point would be a disservice to survivors and to First Nations communities," he said. 

Jock said the residential school healing fund supported some invaluable, distinct programs that still exist today, like the residential trauma program at Tsow Tun Le Lum on Vancouver Island.

Nola Jeffrey, executive director of Tsow Tun Le Lum, said "our communities are just at that tip of the iceberg in that healing work.

"You don't heal overnight. It's a lifelong journey." 

She said the residential substance abuse and trauma programming at Tsow Tun Le Lum isn't reliant on the health fund that's set to expire but they do stand to lose several health support workers and cultural support providers. 

Nola Jeffrey is executive director of Tsow Tun Le Lum on Vancouver Island. (Supplied by Nola Jeffrey)

Jeffrey said these staff are a critical piece of creating a continuum of care. 

"We have the ability with this program to bring the healing right to community, right to people's homes," she said. 

Wilson said many survivors and families in the communities she works with don't trust non-Indigenous counsellors or doctors. 

"That's just the unfortunate reality. Their trauma has made them so distrustful," she said. 

Having culturally knowledgeable, safe and trusted support in the community can be the catalyst for knitting people into the health-care system and referring them to more in-depth treatment programs like Tsow Tun Le Lum, if appropriate. 

Richard Jock said all this work has proven its worth over the years. 

"And it's part of reconciliation," he said. 

Indigenous Services Canada, the department that distributes the funds, told CBC News there hasn't been any commitment for funding renewal to date. 

But a spokesperson from the ministry wrote in an emailed statement that "Canada is committed to continuing to strengthen access to culturally grounded and community-based mental wellness services."

The statement also said the ministry "has worked with partners around ways to continue supporting access to these types of services beyond 2021."

People like White and Wilson say they haven't received any assurances about continued support from Ottawa. 

"I've instructed my staff to prepare for the worst," said Wilson.