Knowledge Keeper Richard Armstrong of the Penticton Indian Band talks to students at season-ending ceremonies of the Spirit North program last year.                                Western News file photo

Knowledge Keeper Richard Armstrong of the Penticton Indian Band talks to students at season-ending ceremonies of the Spirit North program last year. Western News file photo

Indigenous youth program offered in the Okanagan is in jeopardy

If government funding does not come through an Indigenous youth program may be cancelled

A “life changing” pilot program for over 1,500 Indigenous youth and their families that began last year in Penticton and two other B.C. communities may be cancelled.

Beckie Scott, CEO of the Alberta-based Spirt North, said this week she has received word federal government funding necessary to run the program may not be continued.

“They (Indigenous Services Canada, ISC) have been very, very non-committal, we re-applied to have the funds sustained and we’ve not received an answer but it’s looking now like we won’t get it,” said Scott. “I have done everything to try and convince (ISC) to at least giving us an answer and supporting the program but they have not said anything in terms of when they can let us know … and that has been frustrating to say the least.

“Normally we would have had contracts signed and coaches confirmed for the year ahead, but everyone is in limbo right now as we do not know if funding will come through. It’s made our work, and trying to plan for this year, very challenging.”

Formed in 2009, the goal of Spirit North is to deliver regular land-based sport programming to Indigenous kids with various activities starting in September culminating with an introduction to cross-country skiing in the winter months.

“What happened last year after the pilot program, we sent our evaluation in (to ISC) and I asked them what is the next step in sustaining the program’s ongoing funding and they said: ‘Oh, all you have to do is just re-apply with your proposal for funding for this year (2018-19) and it will basically be a rubber stamp, so no problem,’ and I did that,” said Scott. “So when I hadn’t heard and hadn’t heard, I tried to contact them and they said things have changed and it’s not looking like you will receive funding.”

Related: Sharing the voices of the mountains with Spirit North

She added she was also told by ISC the reason her group wouldn’t be getting the money is because only organizations that were “Indigenous led” would qualify for funding although Scott has since been informed that policy is under review.

When contacted by the Western News, ISC spokesman William Olscamp responded to questions about the funding decision in an email, saying: “The selection process for the New Paths for Education Innovation program is not yet finalized. The department expects to be able to communicate decisions in the coming weeks. Typically, the department accepts proposals for funding under this program once a year through a call for proposals. Additional information regarding the application process for the New Paths to Education Program can be found on the department’s website.”

Attempts by Scott, an Olympic gold and silver cross country skier, to contact the minister responsible for ISC, Jane Philpott, were unsuccessful.

MP’s for both regions, Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley) and Richard Cannings (South Okanagan-West Kootenay) have sent letters to the minister expressing their support for the program, according to Scott.

Last year at Nickel Plate Nordic Centre about 300 students from Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School and West Bench Elementary School and their families took part in the inaugural program here.

“Our mission is really to transform the lives of Indigenous children and youth through sport and we’re all about creating an opportunity for children who haven’t had the opportunity before to benefit from all the great things that sport can bring,” said Scott.

Related: VIDEO: Spirit North take Indigenous youth back to the land through sport

In addition to Penticton in 2017, programs were also established at the ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo Learning Centre in Kitsumkalum, just west of Terrace (675-plus children and families) and at Moricetown Elementary Band School near Smithers (516-plus children and families).

Along with the training at Nickel Plate, free passes and equipment were provided for students and families during the season.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from all First Nations and the Penticton Indian Band has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Perianne Jones, who was one of two Spirit North community outreach leaders working with the kids last year at Nickel Plate. “We’re hearing back that this is very healing for the children.”

A large part of the program’s focus is to build a sense of belonging and to that end Spirit North has been working with local elders including Penticton Indian Band Knowledge Keeper Richard Armstrong, to translate trail signs at Nickel Plate into nsyilxcən, the traditional language alongside English signs throughout the entire trail network.

“I am very, very sad to hear they may not get the funding. It was such a great program,” said Armstrong, who attended last year’s closing ceremonies at Nickel Plate. “I’s important that they (children) connect with the land when they’re young like that. That way they have the respect for all things that the land brings to us, whether it’s entertainment, whether it’s food, whether it’s just the serenity of being in the woods or the mountains. That kind of respect is only fostered when we are there and you shout at the mountain and let them know you are there.”

For Spirit North, a charitable organization, program delivery uses 93 per cent of the $580,000 operating expenses, government funding accounts for 47 per cent ($390,000) of revenue with the rest coming from corporate and individual donations (20 per cent) and the remaining 20 per cent from foundations.

The 2017 annual report (for B.C. and Alberta) showed 38 schools involved, 4,570 students engaged, 34 communities visited, 145 outreach delivery days, 50 leaders trained and 16 races.

If the funding from the ISC does not come through, the program will still continue in Alberta this season thanks to longstanding corporate sponsorship and support, according to Scott, which she had hoped would eventually happen as well in B.C. as Spirit North continued its work in this province in the coming years.

“Last year in Penticton we had a lot of parents and family members coming up and saying it was so great to be involved,” she said. “Everyone from knowledge keeper to elders, to teachers to students were all saying this was a life-changing transformative program to open a window into sport and activities for students and families and it was very powerful.”

Scott added, even if funding does come through at this late date there will still be time to implement the program in the three regions.

“We’ve notified our coaches to stand by,” she said.

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.


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