Nathan joins Emergency Debate on funding for Aboriginal Healing Foundation

On Tuesday March 30, 2010 New Democrats called for an emergency debate in the House of Commons on the government’s decision to cancel funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. This national program has funded 134 projects throughout Canada to assist residential school survivors cope with and recover from the trauma experienced.  Last year, the Prime Minister finally issued an apology to residential school survivors but the decision to cancel funding to the AHF shows a lack of commitment to follow through

Funding is set to expire today (March 31). Nathan and his colleagues have presented petitions and appealed to the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and directly to the Prime Minister to restore funding immediately.


Mr. Nathan Cullen (Skeena—Bulkley Valley, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague. I do not know him well. He seems like a nice fellow. I assume he understands, because he said he does, the impacts that residential schools had on aboriginal people and continue to have to this day.

I am speaking in part out of the frustration of the people I know who have been involved in the Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s work in the northwestern area of British Columbia, who I represent. They have been involved in the six programs that are in existence that have now lost their funding and their capacity to do the community-based work that has been seen as so crucial. It smacks of a certain hypocrisy of the government and a tragic sense of cynicism to say that a report that was sitting on a minister’s desk for months, a report that we now know says the Aboriginal Healing Foundation worked and worked well, was released the day after the budget. It was done by Indian Affairs itself, saying how wonderfully this community-based system worked, a family-based system, delivered by first nations for first nations and that it was helping the healing process. The cynicism to cut that program in the budget and then release a report the next day that says what a fantastic program this was smacks of a hypocrisy to the first nations communities that I represent and all across this country. The apology was meant to be followed up by action. That is what we asked the Prime Minister for when we all sat in this place and listened to the residential school apology.

First nations people, despite many generations of broken promises, took the chance and said they would give the Prime Minister the time, saying maybe he would follow up on this action and deliver and support aboriginal healing in this country.

Now we find out that all of these programs are being cut, programs that were working, and the government is saying that it is very interested in this healing process and wants to support it. The way the government can support it is to continue the funding.

At 11:50pm, following nearly six hours of emotional debate, Nathan rose to give the following address to the House of Commons


Mr. Speaker, I would like to say that it is a pleasure to engage in the debate but unfortunately the circumstances are not ideal because we are talking about something going away that I think there is general agreement worked and was effective, and that was the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

I found myself caught up in the passions of this conversation and frankly the anger I feel about this because I am thinking about the human impact about what we are here talking about tonight.

We are meant to speak to these things in civil tones with one another, understand each other’s points of reasons and debate the rhetoric and yet the human side of this conversation cannot be ignored. What will happen to people starting tomorrow when they no longer can find the services that for some folks were what were keeping them alive, that were so vital and able to continue a healing process, of something that we as a country have officially admitted was a devastating impact on an entire culture, an entire people?

In the northwest of British Columbia where I come from there are six service centres operating over a range of 300,000 square kilometres. It was not like we were tripping over them while walking around the northwest of B.C. They were servicing huge areas, some of them as big as a country, and these centres will be closed. The folks who were going to these centres trying to get their lives in order and trying to work through things will not be able to do that anymore.

We have heard from government members that there is some program out there that they cannot produce or show us. It says that it exists but no one believes it because it is a simple trust exercise.

One can forgive the first nations people of Canada for lacking a little bit of trust in the government and, frankly, any government. The simple “trust us” will not cut it.

I really hope the parliamentary secretary takes this back to the Minister of Health who engages with the first nations communities and actually presents them with a plan, shows them where the centres will be and where the resources will be for people. Otherwise we will drop them and, if we drop them, that is worse than anything else.

I hear members saying that it is all there. Where is it ? We are looking for the plan, the dates, the spending and the services that will be there so I can tell my constituents, the people who have been going to these service centres, where they go next when those doors are locked tomorrow morning. Where is the service? If it is not there, then the government should be ashamed.

The government should only hope and pray that it has evaluations on its programs, like the evaluation it received on the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, an evaluation that came back and said, “Great work, effective, taking on a difficult problem, a challenging problem of how to heal a people, not just at the individual level”, which the government says is the only cure, “but at the family and community level”, which first nations have said time and again that this is the path forward and have asked that we listen to them. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation was a program that did this.

I am not sure if there are many hon. members here tonight or have been engaged in this debate who have actually attended an Aboriginal Healing Foundation forum. This is a powerful, moving and humbling thing to go through when one stands side by side with somebody who day in and day out listens to difficult, tragic, impossible stories and yet goes to work the next day to help folks out.

In the strangest of ironies, the day the Prime Minister stood in his place here, that in my riding, in my region it was the Aboriginal Healing Foundation that hosted forums for first nations people, feasts and discussions to talk about the apology, to discuss it and in fact to celebrate it, despite all the years of evidence showing that the Government of Canada may not be trustworthy.

We all remember that when the Prime Minister stood up, a circle was made here with the leaders of the first nations, Inuit and Métis communities of Canada. The Prime Minister sat with them in the circle along with the Leader of the Opposition and said, in words that felt sincere, that we apologize and that we are sorry. When the apology came forward it was an honest and normal expectation for people to have who were affected by this that there would be action to follow.

My friend from Vancouver East read out the many accolades for this program, The government spent money on this program and it did an assessment of the program. The assessment came back showing that the program was cost effective and was helping to reduce the amount of suicides in a community. The natural inclination for any government, right wing or left wing, it should not matter, should be to say that a cost effective program that is keeping people from killing themselves should be supported and continued, regardless of what was said in 2005.


It is working, and tomorrow it stops working.

I am thinking of the people who go to those programs, the people who attend those sessions. They do not have anything else. That is the point.

Members of Parliament can talk all they want about protocol and discussion and civility, but they should go out into the communities and sit in the villages. I represent communities with 85% and 90% unemployment. It is devastating. My colleague from Vancouver Island faces similar circumstances. If the city of Ottawa were in a similar circumstance, I would give it three months before there was chaos, before there was a tragedy. Can we imagine Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal having 80% unemployment? Yet the communities are somehow managing to survive, despite extremely difficult financial circumstances and social circumstances, some of which was put upon them, such as the residential schools. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation is meant to be a mark of that.

This Truth and Reconciliation Commission is going across the country, including to some of the communities in my riding. The idea is that is going to open things up. Part of the idea was to support the healing that was going to be required once these truth and reconciliation meetings happened. The community-based, family-based counselling is simply not going to be there.

I think we can stand together on certain things. Oftentimes in this place people look to right and left, but oftentimes there is right and wrong. Tonight we are faced with a question of right and wrong.

We have a program which, by the government’s own admission, works. It is effective. For the life of me, I will not be able to explain to the constituents I represent, the people who are attending those programs, who are getting the help that they need, that their government has a plan in place but it just does not seem to have it ready. How will I explain to them that the counsellor they have been working with for years and with whom they have developed trust, support and safety is just not going to be there? The government said that yes, the program worked and yes, it was effective, but it did not want to release the report until the day after it cut its funding.

I am sorry, but it is difficult to tell Canadians that this is some sort of circumstance of timing and a date on the calendar, that we held this report for so many months, this report that said this was effective, but we had to wait until we had the budget and cut the funding to that program in order to tell people about it. Come on. We can do better than that.

At the end of the day, the dignity that first nations people present themselves with, the struggles they are going through on a community-by-community basis, on a family-by-family basis, they need support. They are willing to work with us. They are willing to trust again and again and again, but it is difficult when a government comes forward with a program that works, by every admission, a program that is effective and then turns to the aboriginal people and says, ”Trust us again. We cut this out from under you. We are going to replace it with a 1-800 line and some program that we haven’t articulated, but you have got to trust us. We will be there for you”.

It is a bit difficult and it is a bitter pill to swallow for first nations people from coast to coast to coast.

The government must reconsider this position. It must reconsider what it has done. It can afford this. We can do this. We can continue this program and effectively service aboriginal people who are dealing with the most trying circumstances. I implore the government to see reason.