Time to invest in aboriginal infrastructure

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – Time to invest in aboriginal infrastructure
March 31, 2009.   VERA PAWIS TABOBONDUNG

As most Canadians surely know, infrastructure spending is the federal government’s first priority for pulling the country out of recession. The recent federal budget highlighted it, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is making announcements about it across the country and every cabinet minister makes a point of stressing how important it is.

I could not agree more: Infrastructure is key to economic strength. But when many Canadians think of infrastructure, they picture bridges, roads and sewers. There are many other kinds, such as hospitals, schools and universities.

Aboriginal Friendship Centres are infrastructure, too. In fact, they are Canada’s largest aboriginal service delivery infrastructure. The Friendship Centre movement has 125 agencies providing services to urban aboriginal peoples across Canada. Most cities and towns with sizable aboriginal populations have one. When Canadians think about infrastructure, Aboriginal Friendship Centres should also come to mind, and it is important that the federal government not overlook this important infrastructure.

Friendship Centres provide and promote human resource development through a wide range of programs and services to a diverse and increasing urban aboriginal community. In the past year alone, they served more than 1.1 million client contacts across Canada through more than 1,260 programs with a total value of $114-million. All of our programs are provided “status-blind” – that is, without consideration of whether a person is a status Indian, non-status Indian, Métis, Inuit or non-aboriginal.

These programs and services are made possible through the infrastructure support provided by the federal Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program. The program provides core funding to Friendship Centres from coast to coast and enables the movement to identify local needs and provide local services, helping aboriginal people make positive, significant contributions to urban communities. One of the many successes of this program is that Friendship Centres have been able to leverage the federal funding by a multiplier of seven: For every dollar received from the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program, seven dollars of services are delivered.

Unfortunately, this type of infrastructure spending has been ignored in federal budgets for well over a decade. The Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program budget was frozen in 1996 and has not increased since, which means the centres have been forced to cope with growing populations, increasing demand and inflation without any additional core funding. Although Friendship Centres have found ways to deal with the squeeze, the situation is not sustainable in the long term.

What can be done? The federal program is due for renewal next year, providing an excellent opportunity for the government to correct the neglect by investing appropriately in the most significant off-reserve aboriginal infrastructure in Canada.

Investing in Aboriginal Friendship Centres will protect and enhance the existing taxpayer investment in Friendship Centre infrastructure, and ensure that Canada’s growing urban aboriginal population can fully participate in Canada’s economy and society. And the Prime Minister would have an opportunity for another 125 infrastructure announcements across the country.
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Vera Pawis Tabobondung is president of the National Association of Friendship Centres, which advocates for the needs of centres and their urban aboriginal memberships.

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