It's 3:30. We'll come to order.
I would like to acknowledge that we're meeting today on unceded Algonquin territory and we're very grateful for that.
Before we get to our witnesses today from the National Association of Friendship Centres, I want to just get a sense from members. We have only one organization visiting today, so it leaves us a bit of time on our agenda. What I'd like to propose to do with the order of questions is what we did on Tuesday, which is to complete the first order and repeat, and then go to the second page and do the top half, the seven-minute questions. Wherever that leaves us, we'll leave it there, and we can proceed to two pieces of committee business on the draft suicide study budget and communications plan. Does that seem reasonable to everybody?
It looks like I see assent.
Okay, with that decided, I'm very happy to welcome today on behalf of the committee Christopher Sheppard, vice-president of the National Association of Friendship Centres, and Yancy Craig, director of strategic development.
Christopher has travelled to see us today from St. John's, Newfoundland. Yancy Craig has travelled across the street to see us.
We welcome you both. We're very happy to have you here.
I am happy to offer 10 minutes to divide between yourselves as you see fit. When nine minutes comes along, I will hold up the yellow card. When 10 minutes is up, I will hold up the red card. I would ask you to bring it right to a close at that point so that we can get to the questions.
Without further ado, I cede the floor to you.
Distinguished members of the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs, it's an honour and privilege to appear before you again today.
I wish to acknowledge the Algonquin Nation, upon whose traditional territory we are meeting today.
I thank you for this opportunity to share with you the work of the friendship centre movement and the National Association of Friendship Centres relative to the issues of suicide among indigenous peoples and communities.
As you may recall from my previous appearance before the committee, my name is Christopher Sheppard. I am an Inuk from northern Labrador, and I now live and work in St. John's, Newfoundland.
I grew up in the friendship centre movement. I became actively involved with the aboriginal youth council, and I am currently the vice-president of the National Association of Friendship Centres, also known as the NAFC.
Throughout my career within friendship centres, the topic and concerns of suicide have been constant, even after I left my home community in the north and moved south.
Accompanying me today is Mr. Yancy Craig, the NAFC's director of strategic development.
With our time together, I would like to give you a brief overview of the friendship centre movement, the NAFC, and the urban indigenous population of Canada. I would also like to share with you some of the programs and supports of friendship centres and the NAFC in regard to suicide prevention within urban indigenous communities. Time permitting, I will do my best to respond to the questions you may have.
I would like to begin by sharing some facts with you to set the context for the work of the friendship centre movement.
As you may know, 75% of Canada's indigenous people live off reserve. Nearly 60% live in urban areas. Furthermore the indigenous population is growing at a faster rate than the Canadian average. This means there are approximately 840,000 indigenous people living in Canadian cities.
The Canadian indigenous population is also young, with approximately 50% under the age of 24. This presents a tremendous opportunity for Canada's future social, cultural, and economic development.
Among this growing demographic, there is a growing need for mental health supports being observed. Current estimates suggest that 15% of young Canadians between the ages of 14 and 24 cope with some form of anxiety, depression, addictions, or other social distresses. Estimates among indigenous populations are twice the national average, with addictions and suicides being five to six times the national average. Friendship centres know this first-hand, and they have identified the need for additional strategies and capacity for mental health programs for urban indigenous communities, especially among youth.
As I shared with you during my previous appearance, friendship centres emerged beginning in the 1950s out of the need for indigenous people migrating to urban centres to have a friendly and welcoming space to gather and to express their culture. For over half a century, friendship centres have helped urban indigenous people access the vital services they need to succeed in urban settings across Canada. Friendship centres understand the challenges facing our communities, and with the unique wraparound service delivery model, we ensure that we are well equipped to tackle them.
Across the country, friendship centres provide culturally appropriate services for indigenous people living in urban centres, and they have become places for indigenous and non-indigenous people to come together, share traditions, and learn from one another.
Friendship centres are a significant part of Canada's social infrastructure, with more than two million client contacts annually, serving Canada's most vulnerable urban indigenous populations and making the friendship centre movement the country's most significant off-reserve indigenous service delivery infrastructure.
The NAFC was created in 1972 to be the voice of its members nationally and internationally. The NAFC's membership now comprises seven provincial and territorial associations, and 118 member friendship centres across Canada in each of your ridings.
The NAFC has a long and unique relationship with the Government of Canada. For the past 30 years, the NAFC has been the administrator of national programs delivered to friendship centres and other urban indigenous organizations on behalf of the Government of Canada.
While we are a not-for-profit network rather than a politically representative organization, the NAFC enjoys a productive relationship with many other indigenous organizations.
The effects of colonization and residential schools have led to high levels of psychological distress within indigenous communities, elders, and youth. No one is immune to those effects.
This is a concern not just for those indigenous people living on reserve, but also for those in Canada's urban centres. Statistics Canada's report “Lifetime suicidal thoughts among First Nations living off reserve, Métis and Inuit aged 26 to 59: Prevalence and associated characteristics” found that one in five off-reserve indigenous adults has contemplated suicide, and recent reports have shown that this number is continually growing. In the mental health program of one friendship centre alone, over 50% of all current clients have a risk factor for suicide.
Many indigenous people prefer cultural- and heritage-based services that are offered outside of the mainstream medical system. These often include a more holistic view of mental health and its treatments. Friendship centre programming is exactly that.
Friendship centres support culturally safe delivery of these much-needed services in innovative ways. Many centres have health outreach workers to ensure that the health needs of community members are addressed in a cultural and holistic way that addresses the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of individuals. These services are available on a one-to-one basis or in a group setting, where action plans are developed to help meet short- and long-term goals of participants.
There are also healing and wellness programs at friendship centres, which provide support to community members seeking to access traditional services and supports, and through which action plans are also developed to help meet the goals of community members.
Friendship centres with addictions and mental health programs offer cultural spaces for individuals with mental health and addictions issues to find the help they need in moving toward a healthier lifestyle. The program also works to make better connections between urban indigenous communities and non-indigenous health services. This is done by educating non-indigenous staff about the specific needs of indigenous people and creating partnerships to connect them with a friendship centre.
Many friendship centres also have elder and youth programs providing the opportunity for open and honest discussions around the topics of healthy lifestyles, where elders share their experiences as survivors of the residential school system and information on other topics that youth may be too intimidated to ask about.
These are but a few examples of how friendship centres help heal our communities, but more needs to be done. Many of our centres do not have the funds or capacity for clinical mental health services. As we have seen with the tragic events in La Loche, Cross Lake, and too many other communities, friendship centres are heavily relied upon for their unique support programs.
The NAFC has taken on efforts to promote healing and wellness in our communities. In 2012, the NAFC's aboriginal youth council embarked on a suicide prevention and awareness project for urban aboriginal youth ages 10 to 24. This included a proposal and call-out for a suicide prevention kit, and resulted in much-needed research on indigenous youth and mental health. More recently, the NAFC launched newjourneys.ca, an online friendship centre resource. The newjourneys.ca site is home to a unique online searchable database that lists programs and services for indigenous people across the country. The site also features engaging stories, news articles, and blog posts written for the most part by indigenous youth.
As part of the development of newjourneys.ca, the NAFC has partnered with Kids Help Phone. This partnership has not only allowed the NAFC to refer indigenous children and youth to a critical emergency service, but it has also allowed Kids Help Phone to become more responsive to the unique needs of indigenous callers.
The friendship centre movement will continue to support individuals and communities, and is a willing partner in suicide prevention and mental health. The friendship centre movement and the NAFC look forward to working with the government and opposition parties to improve the lives of indigenous people in Canada. This will be achieved through core funding investments in friendship centres so that they continue to have the capacity to operate and to meet the needs of their communities, as well as to look at ways that friendship centres can expand their current successful programs that support individuals affected by suicide.
In closing, I would like to reaffirm that there are community-based solutions to complex problems like suicide. Friendship centres work every day to harness the creativity, energy, and knowledge that can unlock new ideas and new thinking that will lead to enduring social change and contribute to the healing and full inclusion of indigenous people in Canada's economic, cultural, and social fabric.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak to you today. Mr. Craig and I look forward to addressing any questions you might have.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you to the presenters today.
This is an interesting presentation. It's something that I'm quite interested in and was historically very much involved in. I'm one of the founding members of at least one friendship centre in the Northwest Territories, but I worked on several projects that resulted in friendship centres being established. I spent a lot of time at the national level trying to convince people that we needed more friendship centres in the north.
I did that because I saw the benefit of friendship centres. I've worked as a band manager. I've managed band councils. I've been involved with the Métis. I've been involved with the political organizations quite extensively, and I always found that the restriction to serving only members was too confining. We needed an agency in the community that dealt with everybody on an equal basis, and friendship centres really fit that bill for us.
I've seen the community really benefit from the programs in many different areas, such as language development. We've seen cultural programs where drum-making programs were established. We had elders come in and talk about history. We've seen community gardens being worked on so as to provide food for the community. We've seen services provided out of the facility, a facility that was built out of logs. People are still wondering why we built it out of logs, but that was the only resource we had. It's not very energy efficient, but it still serves its purpose.
We've also seen a lot of good programs, such as moms and tots programs. You would think that everybody had a skill for dealing with children and young babies, and you would think that everybody would know how to handle situations, but those things need to be taught in the communities now because of the residential schools syndrome. A lot of people don't have that skill.
We've had courses put on about FASD. There are support programs run through there, such as alcohol and drug programs and so many others. It served as a drop-in centre for all these years. It also has worked as a homeless shelter, because there's nowhere else to put people who have no place to go.
I have several questions, but I wanted you to talk a bit about the funding gaps, about what problems you're not addressing because you don't have the resources. I know that the cuts to the friendship centres in the last while have been pretty drastic. I know that they've cooled off all the programs that were needed, and I also know that there's been nothing in the area of infrastructure funding for putting facilities in place.
You talked about people living off reserve, but in the Northwest Territories, we don't have reserves, so friendship centres serve us well there. They're there for everybody.
Maybe you could talk about the gaps first. Then I'll ask another couple of questions.
In the last few years the funding program that supports friendship centres has gone through what I would say is a fundamental shift. Once upon a time, friendship centres received their money through the Minister of State. It transitioned to the aboriginal friendship centre program, AFCP, and then most recently into the community capacity support program, which falls under the urban aboriginal strategy.
The AFCP, which no longer exists, was a program designed for friendship centres based on the 40-year or 50-year history between friendship centres and the Government of Canada. That has led to, I would say, a substantial shift in how friendship centres are funded. We used to have core funding. It's no longer core funding. That fundamental shift has really changed the way friendship centres are able to operate.
Questions around our eligible expenses, like receptionists and.... I try to explain to people what a friendship centre receptionist is like, so I'll give you the experience of, say, my friendship centre where I come from.
We have a mental health team that consists of a social worker, clinical psychologist, cultural support workers, elder. The receptionist isn't simply saying “Hello, this is the friendship centre, how may I direct your call?” Sometimes the receptionist will say, “Hello,” and there's a person in serious distress on the other line, so how do you prioritize that work? Is it someone that needs to speak to someone right now? Is it someone who can wait an hour? A receptionist isn't just someone who picks up the phone and says, “Hello”. They could be the first one to deal with a huge emergency. They could be the first one to make sure someone gets the help they need. Therefore, for us the idea of having no receptionist in a friendship centre isn't only about someone picking up the phone, it's about whether someone will get the help they need in the amount of time they need it.
The fundamental shift around how friendship centres are funded has been quite significant. It's something that I know the last time we were here we presented on, and we would love to engage with anyone in the room around that, but there has been a fundamental shift in how friendship centres are supported and it creates huge challenges.
One thing that we hear from the north is that funding a friendship centre in the north is very different from funding a friendship centre even in St. John's. I come from the north. I know exactly what that looks like. The costs associated with being able to have a building open and available—
Maybe I'll give some personal background on myself. I'm originally from an isolated Inuit community in the north. I lived there for 17 years. It's a super-strong recreation community. Most of the communities in my area have very strong recreation and sports programs and very strong after-school programs. When I moved, it was one of the more shocking realities to see communities that didn't have that. I'm from a community that isn't a reserve. We have an Inuit government. We have self-government, so we don't face some of those challenges.
One thing I have noticed, which is even relatable to the city, is that when you have young people who have nowhere to go, nothing to do, nowhere safe to be, and all these other barriers piling up, it is not difficult to see how you go down this road of.... I like to remind people that suicide.... I used to be a suicide intervention trainer. It was such a huge concern for our friendship centre that it's what I did. I trained young people, individuals, in how to keep someone alive long enough to get them to someone who could really change their circumstances.
Recreation, the safe space, and the ability for these young people to have somewhere to go are life changing. Most friendship centres have youth programs, after-school programs, that they can go to. It doesn't mean there aren't other barriers that are challenging. When these small things all pile up, sometimes that's what it takes to get a young person to that place, but if there's nowhere for them to go and talk to someone about that.... We've done suicide interventions over Facebook Messenger. We've done them through email. We've had young people walk through the door. It is such a huge concern that even with after-school programming and everything else, there will still be those challenges, but recreation is a game-changer. It's a safe place for people to go to and do an amazing activity.
For those of you who have worked in a community or who have community experience, recreation is also another area that is challenging to fund. We have friendship centres that self-fund volleyball teams for young people and also access to sports. Access to recreation is so challenging, but it can be a huge game-changer because it provides that safe place for young people to go to and have something to do, when maybe they don't even have a safe home to go to. We always look at recreation as so much more than just an activity. It's team building. It's building self-confidence. It's all these things wrapped into one, and trying to explain that to a lot of people is really challenging, because they don't get it or they've never worked in that area.
I worked in youth programming at a friendship centre. I did it for three years. I can see the difference it can make when young people have something they can do. Access is really challenging everywhere. When I see communities that don't have access to this, I find it really shocking that they don't have a safe recreation space to go to.
I think it is about realizing that there is a place for a clinical side and there is a place for a traditional and cultural side, and that those things don't have to be separate.
We have examples where friendship centres' programs or their mental health programs are preferred to a clinical option. It is hard enough for an aboriginal person to walk into a hospital. Can you imagine the barrier to walking into, say, a mental health emergency room? Because they don't feel confident, or comfortable, or understood, they will more likely walk into a friendship centre to talk about those things.
There is a clinical side and there is a cultural side, and those things should work together. A lot of friendship centres do this with a bunch of different programs. There need to be respect and understanding of both, and that you can do both. They are not mutually exclusive.
We have seen programs where there are aboriginal patients in hospitals and friendship centre staff working in those hospitals, or friendship centres that have clinics. The cultural piece is respected and understood, whether you want to smudge or you want to do a cultural ceremony, but realizing that there is an opportunity for the clinical piece, too, and that there can be spaces for those things to happen and they could be amazing.
To sit across from someone who understands you as an indigenous person and still understands some of the mental health or suicide prevention pieces is huge, instead of walking into a hospital and hoping that someone is not going to ask you a horrible question. I think some of the best practices are that they can coexist. The clinical work and cultural work can coexist, and that is great.
Poverty comes in so many different shapes and forms. Urban indigenous people and, say, homelessness, unless you are in a shelter, is almost an invisible problem, because they're probably on a friend's couch or somewhere else and they may not have sustainable housing.
There are so many facets to the poverty piece and suicide. It's really hard to tackle poverty when you talk to a person and tell them to get a job. Well, telling someone to look for a job is one thing, but how do you get a job when you have multiple barriers? You have a criminal record; you don't have a lot of training, and you may have other barriers. It comes down to why we do things the way we do them. Why do we offer transportation? Why do we have a homeless shelter? Why do we offer youth programming, day care, or whatever we need to offer? It's because it's so challenging for an indigenous person to get.... When an average Canadian walks into, say, an employment centre, they fill out their information and get some support, get some training. An aboriginal or indigenous person will not walk into an organization where they don't feel safe and start disclosing all these things, “I'm homeless. I don't have my children. My children were taken away. I have an addiction. I have a criminal record”. They're not going to tell just anyone that.
When we look at an individual, we say that suicide is an immediate risk, so it's an immediate thing you have to solve. But so are glasses, so is being able to see, so is not having your medication, and so is not having food to put on your table. There are all these things. We try to tackle them one at a time and meet the immediate risk there. Poverty is real.
Poverty for indigenous people in urban centres is a real thing. We see it every day. It's why friendship centres have food banks. It's why we have clothing that people can pick up. It's why we have homeless shelters. You see it, and it's real.
We talk about how hard it is to get housing. Well, add in everything else. Good luck getting a credit check for an apartment. Good luck passing some of those pieces. I've had people denied housing when they responded yes when asked if they are aboriginal. They were told, “Well, actually, the damage deposit is now twice that, and you have to provide this much more, because I'm not sure if I can rent to you.”
You have all these huge things that make up the poverty piece that is about how to offer as many things as you can. It's why friendship centres have become so innovative in offering day care, transportation, help to get a job, and whatever it takes. Sometimes you can't even refer an aboriginal person to another service provider, because they probably won't go. They might go if you go with them. It's no different from them walking into a hospital, because they're at immediate risk of dying by suicide, and being lucky if they aren't handed a piece of paper and told to call the numbers on it.
Poverty is more than not making enough money. It's the combination of all those things that we see every day.
It's really challenging to explain that to a lot of people, because people think of poverty as the person sitting on the street. Someone seems like they might have everything they need, but they don't. They're not able to provide for themselves or their family, and that's a reality.
Okay, it takes a healthy person, a job, resources, and somewhere to sleep. That's what I mean. When you're constantly dealing with somewhere to sleep, something to eat, being able to see.... You know, it's crazy to think that you have clients who can't even see because they can't get glasses. That is a real barrier. Suicide is an immediate risk factor. Housing is an immediate risk factor. There are all these things.
Infrastructure is a huge thing, but it's not just about saying, “Here's a house.” That's like saying, “Here's a job.” At friendship centres we can get you a job any day, and that's awesome. However, it's what happens from 5:00 in the evening until 9:00 the next morning, or with your family, or with other concerns. You need the ability to provide those supports. Do you have someone you can call 24 hours a day, because if you're not going to make it to work tomorrow, you'll lose your job, lose your housing, and it goes on, one after the next.
For us it's don't just provide the money. That's like saying, “Here's the money to buy a car without money to maintain it,” or, “Here's the money to open a youth centre without money to run it.” Poverty is like that.
Yes, it would be great to have the infrastructure money to do that, but you also need the money to provide the services that support people until they're able to do it themselves.