NWT friendship centres marched into the COVID-19 crisis weathering a tighter budget.

With the onset of the pandemic, the organizations have less money than previous years to help provide their services: shelters, meals, community support, and elders programs.

That’s because last month the main 2020-21 budget estimate for the territorial government signalled the end of a two-year program that provided friendship centres with $250,000 in funding.

On April 3, regular MLAs called on the GNWT to earmark crisis funding for the centres, to organize community responses and to help them access federal food bank money and northern food security support.

That would all be welcome for Anthony Rabesca, president of NWT and Nunavut’s Council of Friendship Centres, as he wants “to battle this (Covid-19) and start helping our people.”

Anthony Rabesca, president of NWT and Nunavut’s Council of Friendship Centres, says the organizations will continue to work through the pandemic. Photo Courtesy of Anthony Rabesca

The centres provide service to roughly 13,000 people in seven communities across NWT. During the crisis, they’ve transitioned to food delivery and broadcasting community news updates over the radio, Rabesca said.

Some federal money keeps them at a baseline of operations, but doesn’t support a full slate of services, Rabesca said.

To change that, Deh Cho MLA Ronald Bonnetrouge asked the government for crisis funding to support the friendship centres facing down the pandemic.

He was motivated to do so because he saw his local centre in Fort Providence struggling.

“There’s no other organization in our community that can provide that kind of service,” Bonnetrouge said. “There’s nobody else running those organizations. We don’t have any volunteer organizations and stuff like this. Friendship centres have been counted on to run a lot of things.”

The requested money isn’t a replacement for the lost funding, which Bonnetrouge said was his original proposal. Rather, he sees it as crisis funding acting as a stepping stone to regular funding.

The NWT government didn’t respond to NNSL Media’s request for comment by press time.

Funding wasn’t meant to be long-term

Responding to concerned MLAs in budget talks on March 4, Premier Caroline Cochrane said “that we need to care for the friendship centres. They do provide valuable services.”

Additionally, deputy minister of Executive and Indigenous Affairs Martin Goldney said the GNWT funding was short-term, encouraging the centres to find other sources of money “by offering some time-limited matching funds.”

“It wasn’t intended as ongoing funding to replace federal government funding. It was meant to support the association’s own efforts to find new sources of ongoing funding,” he said.

In response, Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos and Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson both took up the issue. Noting Elder and youth programming, Simpson called the centres more than a non-profit, being “a home for First Nations, Metis and others to gather.”

Meanwhile, Rabesca, despite reduced resources, said the centres would still aim to offer services and get the word out about social distancing and COVID-19 safety practices.

There hadn’t been a wave of illness of this magnitude in the NWT since a devastating influenza outbreak in the 1920s, he said, calling the situation “a battle” the centres needed to take part in.

“We’re going to continue. It’s something that’s in our blood as a friendship centres in the North and a movement that we’ve been doing for many, many years,” he said. “We need to work together making sure that our people are aware of it, so that they themselves can save their lives.

Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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