While Ontario’s Ford government says it’s reviewing a fund put in place to facilitate Indigenous cultural practices, critics say the layoff of all four Indigenous employees hired to operate the program is an indication the Progressive Conservatives have no intention of continuing what the Liberals started two years ago as part of a broader reconciliation effort.
When news broke last month that Doug Ford was reviewing the Indigenous Culture Fund (ICF), the four women who operate the ICF already knew they were out of a job.
In mid-December the ministry announced a $5 million funding cut to the Ontario Arts Council (OAC), and a separate $2.25 million cut to the $5 million annual ICF, which was initiated in 2016 as part of the previous Liberal government’s reconciliation efforts.
On Dec. 12, two days before news of the funding cuts broke, OAC employees received a letter titled “Ontario Arts Council Funding Update – Talking Points & External Q&As”.
The letter, obtained by APTN News, appears to be written by a member of the OAC.
It says the agency “has been informed that it must stick to the messaging provided by the Ministry with respect to our funding situation” when members of the public and media come looking for answers.
The OAC, an arm’s-length government agency that supports artists and arts organizations, falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
In 2016 the four Indigenous staff were hired to oversee and administer ICF grants ranging from $1,000 to $120,000.
Dozens of grants have been administered to Indigenous individuals, organizations and collectives “to support First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, culture and way of life,” according to the OAC website.
The program was implemented following former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne’s 2016 apology to residential school survivors and was part of the Liberals’ $250 million investment in programs intended to facilitate reconciliation with Indigenous people and communities.
A Dec. 14 statement from a Tourism, Culture and Sport spokesperson about the ICF cut blamed the Liberals’ “wasteful and irresponsible handling of the province’s finances” for forcing the PCs “to make tough decisions”.
“Every area of government shares a commitment to spend taxpayer dollars responsibly and efficiently,” Brett Weltman, press secretary for Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Michael Tibollo, wrote in the statement to media.
The Dec. 12 letter to OAC staff directs them to “avoid speculating or interpreting motives when in telephone or face-to-face conversations with members of the arts community, other stakeholders, or anyone outside OAC staff.”
It also indicates the ministry directed OAC staff not to announce the funding cuts, but only to “engage in reactive rather than proactive communication.”
If asked about funding cuts, OAC staff are directed by the letter to respond neither affirmatively, nor negatively — only to recite the line: “This government believes that professional artists and arts organizations play an important role in building a strong, prosperous economy while making valuable contributions to the quality of life in our province’s communities. That’s why Ontario will continue to invest in the OAC at the 2017-18 level of $64.9 million.”
Only if a follow-up question is asked regarding the funding amount are OAC staff instructed to clarify that “OAC’s base funding in 2018-19 was originally $69.9 million,” indicating a $5 million cut to the OAC, and that “the Indigenous Culture Fund funding was $5 million and becomes $2.75 million for 2018-19.”
The ministry’s Dec. 14 statement didn’t mention job losses, but the letter confirms that “all ICF staff have been notified that their contracted positions will not be renewed after March, 2019.”
The letter instructs OAC staff to redirect anyone inquiring about the ICF staff jobs to Tourism, Culture and Sport communications person Denelle Balfour.
Balfour has not responded to multiple emails and phone messages from APTN since mid-December.
Another ministry staffer said Friday they would pass an interview request along to Tibollo, but APTN did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, whose government is behind the Indigenous Culture Fund and Ontario’s broader reconciliation efforts in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, called the script for OAC staff “despicable,” adding “civil servants should not be asked to take such political positions.”
Wynne, who still sits as MPP for her riding of Don Valley West in Toronto, told APTN the document reveals the Doug Ford government “knows it should be ashamed of what they’re doing, because if they felt confident that they were acting honourably and in good conscience they wouldn’t be worried about silencing people.
“I have a hard time believing that they don’t know that this is wrong, that [the ICF] is work that should be done,” she said.
Janet Day of Serpent River First Nation in northern Ontario has used ICF grants to bring to life something that literally came to her in a dream.
Following her second Sundance a couple of years ago, the mother and artist dreamed she was to “make drums for the people because my community was full of grief, there was a lot of deaths,” she explained in a phone interview.
Day said an ICF grant for $3,500 “opened up a door” for her.
Janet Day of Serpent River First Nation has used ICF grants to acquire and share traditional knowledge and has plans to turn her work into a business that would donate proceeds to grassroots groups in her community. Submitted photo.
She visited an elder in her community, Peter Miller, who taught her how to make the drums.
Day said Miller later passed away, and that she is fortunate to have acquired some of his knowledge to pass on to others.
She said the drum making catapulted into other things like rattle-making, skirt-making, and drum bag-making, all of which have been supported by small grants from the ICF.
She’s now working to start an online business to sell her hand-crafted items, proceeds from which she says will go to “land-based, grassroots cultural projects and/or healing initiatives for youth, women, men and children and uniting our families.”
Emails to OAC staff members, including ICF staff, from APTN went unanswered.
The script directs staff to pass media requests along to OAC communications staff, but those requests for info also went unanswered.
As a grant recipient Melody McKiver, an Anishinaabe musician and youth worker in Sioux Lookout, shared proof with APTN that ICF staff were following the script verbatim.
In a request for information about the funding cuts and the rumoured ICF job losses, McIver received a response from ICF Manager Janine Manning.
In the email Manning recites lines from the script, including:
“All ICF staff have been notified that their contract positions will not be renewed after March, 2019. ICF staff are eligible to apply to any job posting at the OAC as they arise.”
In another email containing separate questions about the funding cuts, Manning quotes parts of the script that says the government “is reviewing the Indigenous Culture Fund (ICF) to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used responsibly and efficiently to maximize the impact of Indigenous culture support. There will not be a final intake for the 2018-19 ICF while the program is under review.”
Wynne said the ICF was part of the government’s effort “to address the very clear need for support of local communities, individuals, elders, memory-keepers, story-keepers to be able to tell those stories and to be able to work in their own communities.”
She said she’s “very worried about [the Ford] government’s attitude towards the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
McKiver said the script’s language “feels manipulative and deceptive because of how they’re saying it’s under review makes it sound like a decision that hasn’t been made yet.
“If the program is under review, then why are employees being laid off? Something is not adding up in how the government is handling this, and it seems like they anticipated a backlash.”
Day said she was planning to apply for a larger grant to help bring her bigger vision to fruition.
She wasn’t aware of the script or its contents.
She said regardless of whether she gets any further ICF grants, she will find a way to do her work and facilitate healing from residential schools and the intergenerational trauma they spurred.
McKiver said they too will find a way to continue their work toward “the ongoing health and regeneration of Indigenous communities,” but that “living in a capitalist society it’s definitely easier when there’s financial resources attached.
“With reconciliation being a buzzword, having funds like these in place, that provide communities with resources to restore things of cultural importance on their own terms and not the government’s terms, is extremely important.
“If we’re viewing this from a reconciliation framework, then this is the part of the government beginning not only a reconciliation but a reparations process.”