Friendship centre finds new ways of supporting community despite lack of money from feds

Although its clients live and work not far from Parliament Hill, the Odawa Native Friendship Centre says it hasn’t received a cent from the federal government to continue supporting urban Indigenous people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The off-reserve organization is one of many across the country competing for a share of the $15 million urban portion of the $305-million Indigenous Community Support Fund. Despite applying two weeks ago, Odawa doesn’t know whether their request for emergency funding will be approved.

Melanie Paniaq used to access the friendship centre’s services “all the time,” but now she’s just “trying to survive.”

“It’s lonely, and alone – and thank God for internet and Facetime,” she said in a telephone interview from Odawa’s homeless drop-in centre, where she helps out with cleaning.

Originally from Igloolik in Nunavut, Paniaq moved to the nation’s capital in 1987 and currently lives in an apartment by herself.

“I’m able to talk to family and friends. You’re faced with your own demons when you’re so alone, and then you’re also faced with opposite of demons: the goodness of life.”

Paniaq is one of many clients struggling as only essential businesses and services remain open, Odawa’s executive directors explained in a call with APTN News.

“People are getting stressed and tired of being stuck and locked up in their homes. A lot of people are hoping this is going to go away,” said Kim Jerome.

“Our homeless are really struggling with this. Things have changed. They’ve lost their normal place where they would come and have a breakfast and a lunch served every day, where they could actually sit down and have a meal.”

(Odawa’s homelessness drop-in centre remains open, though other programs have had to halt or alter operations. Photo courtesy: Odawa Native Friendship Centre)

Read more: Indigenous friendship centres, service providers scramble to provide programming amid COVID-19 shutdown

The organization says it applied on April 13 for almost $240,000 out of the $15 million which Ottawa earmarked for urban Indigenous communities.

On Saturday, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said Ottawa had approved funding requests to support 94 programs that support urban Indigenous populations.

“We are also working quickly to get the funds out the door for the 94 accepted submissions. We have streamlined the process so the funds can flow directly to Indigenous communities and groups across the country in short order,” said ISC Minister Marc Miller.

The issue of supporting urban Indigenous communities entered the spotlight early last week when the health committee heard that “jurisdictional wrangling” and a “competitive” application process hampered urban organizations’ ability to respond to the public health crisis.

“Public policy is still crafted from a perspective that does not appropriately reflect where Indigenous people live,” said Christopher Sheppard-Buote, president of the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC).

The next day, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), which advocates on behalf of non-status and off-reserve Indigenous people, criticized the federal government for a perceived lack of support for urban Indigenous communities.

On April 22, CAP pointed out that some national organizations had already received funding and announced support programs, while “other Indigenous organizations have only begun to receive confirmation or denial of their funding applications as of today.”

Odawa had not yet received approval or denial of their proposal. The organization entered into a coalition with other service providers in the city and has taken referrals from ones who have had to temporarily close. Odawa has started doing community outreach, delivering care packages to families and connecting remotely with clients.

(Odawa workers deliver care packages in Ottawa. Photo courtesy: Odawa Native Friendship Centre)

“The competitive process isn’t really new to us. It’s certainly not ideal, especially in times like this, to pit people against each other,” said Jerome, joined by Colleen Sauve and Anita Armstrong, Odawa’s early years director and acting director of operations respectively.

“They want us to work together but yet we’re put against each other when it comes to funding.”

Odawa is also running its food bank out of rented storage PODS and hastily purchased freezers because its headquarters is located within a school, meaning workers can’t access the building as long as the provincial state of emergency remains in effect.

“We have one person in one POD and the other one in another, and they make up the boxes as people call in. And then we have drivers that come to the POD, keeping their distance, picking up the box of food, and then delivering it to the address on a porch,” Jerome said.

Margaret Sutherland moved to Ottawa in 2004 from Fort Albany First Nation, a Cree community in northern Ontario. She said she used attend events at the friendship centre and has received already one care package that included meat, fish and cereal.

“You get stressed when you’re thinking about what you’re going to do. Every morning I get up and wonder. You can’t just go out like usual before this happened,” said Sutherland, a mother of three who has called Ottawa home since 2004.

She tries to connect with family but has already missed out on two of her children’s birthday this month.

Sutherland lives alone in an apartment and struggles with the same loneliness as Paniaq.

“You’ve got to learn to be patient,” said Paniaq of how she’s overcoming the challenge.

“Life changes so much so drastically, and I realized that I’m very changeable accordingly.”

Online Reporter - Ottawa

Brett is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in Ontario. He grew up in Ottawa where he obtained an English degree from Carleton University. Brett is a creative writer, poet, and journalist. He joined the Ottawa bureau for APTN News in December 2019 as a digital reporter.