Clarke gauging needs of Friendship Centres

Eileen Clarke plans to visit Manitoba’s 11 Friendship Centres this summer to understand their specific needs, which she says will inform her actions as Manitoba’s Indigenous relations minister.

Her announcement comes one week after the Manitoba Association of Friendship Centres expressed disappointment over Budget 2023, claiming in a news release that it doesn’t do enough to address the needs of urban Indigenous people.

While applauding the budget’s focus on health care and child care, a lack of additional funding for Friendship Centres means Indigenous people living in urban centres will get left behind, said MAFC president David Gray.

Friendship Centres are non-governmental organizations spread out across Canada that commonly provide a wide range of services and programming with a focus on counselling, advocacy as well as health, wellness and cultural identity.

The last increase to any funding by any provincial government to Friendship Centres in Canada was in 2001.

“We have spent the last four years asking government, and the government promising to engage with us in a review to evaluate the essential services that centres provide and determine meaningful funding levels for those services,” Gray said in the release.

Clarke said those are some of the points she hopes to touch on during her tour of Friendship Centres, adding she’s currently reviewing the budget with Gray’s comments in mind.

The provincial budget was released March 7 and has yet to be passed in the Manitoba legislature.

The minister acknowledged the important work Friendship Centres do in communities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, noting: “They’ve always been a very high priority for me.”

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Friendship Centres across Manitoba stepped up to serve their communities, she added.

“They helped anybody that needed meals, or needed shelter or … in any capacity that they could help because their outreach is simply amazing.”

Gray praised Clarke’s efforts to advocate for Friendship Centres during the last several years, but said it’s time for the province to take a serious look at their funding situation.

“The government needs to appreciate our innovation and effort better,” he said.

While Gray said the MAFC will soon provide more specific information on the funding it would like to see from the province, the Brandon Friendship Centre is still reviewing the latest budget.

According to Jeremy Monias, the BFC’s housing and finance executive assistant, it’s normal for some programs within Friendship Centres to receive funding while others go without. For example, a program for children younger than preschool age often gets overlooked for funding, while the preschool program at the BFC is well-funded.

“A lot of times certain programs don’t ever see an increase,” Monias said. “But then some of them get healthy budgets and increases.”

For Gray, he’d like to see more money directed toward vulnerable people, youth and the elderly.

“Particularly, people who are addicted [to substances] almost always have a bunch of other problems, and they fall between the cracks,” he said. “We really need a referral worker whose job it is to fill those cracks and help those people.”

Youth are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw them cut off from their peers and social groups and meant they had to learn in less-than-ideal environments, Gray said.

“All of the effects of that are going to be felt by those youth for years to come and will be passed on to other children.”

Elderly people, especially those living in care homes, in many ways fared even worse during the pandemic, and are in need of help now to get back on their feet, Gray said. His mother, who lived in a personal care home during the pandemic, is one of those people.

Friendship Centres are used to working with people from all walks of life, demographics and backgrounds, which is why it’s so important that they receive the proper funding to help people, Gray said.

Gray, however, remains optimistic about the future of Friendship Centres in Manitoba. He’s also looking forward to working with Clarke to ensure those organizations don’t get left behind leading up to this year’s provincial election and into the future, he said.

“If that cabinet, and that minister of finance, can be moved by anyone, it’ll be by Eileen Clarke.”

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun