How Friendship Centres are Preparing for a Possible Second Coronavirus Wave

Funding COVID-19 Recovery

Why It Matters

Friendship centres across Canada say they are supporting Indigenous people who have nowhere else to turn, as they face discrimination from mainstream service providers. Yet, the National Association of Friendship Centres says the government has not prioritized Indigenous voices, which is essential in planning how to build back better.

Photo: Under One Sky Friendship Centre

With a concerning upward trend of coronavirus cases in many parts of Canada, the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) is preparing to respond to increased needs over the coming months.

“I feel now we are at the calm before the next storm, but we don’t know what that storm will be like,” says Jocelyn Formsma, executive director of the NAFC, a network of over 100 Friendship Centres and Provincial/Territorial Associations who have been supporting First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in urban areas since the 1950s. 

With coronavirus cases increasing in provinces including Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Aberta, experts are worried about a possible second wave of the virus this fall. As of Tuesday, Canada had 145,415 confirmed or presumptive coronavirus cases, with 125,534 of those reported as recovered or resolved.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Canadians to be vigilant and follow precautions. “The last thing anyone wants is to go into this fall in a lockdown similar to this spring,” Trudeau said. 

In May, through a competitive process, the government granted $3.75 million to the NAFC for their coronavirus response efforts, with an additional $15.2 million in funding granted in May, for a total of $18.95 million. 

Formsma says she has “no way of knowing” if the funding is enough, and expects it will last until November or December. As schools reopen, CERB benefits end or transition into unemployment insurance, and with holidays nearing, she expects Friendship Centres will see an increase in demands particularly for food and gifts for family gatherings, and is unsure whether the centres are well-resourced to handle this. 

“Some centres have told us: We don’t want to spend it [the funding] all now because what if something happens and we have a spike and we need to move quickly?” But Formsma’s advice is clear: “Our message is don’t withhold any services. If you need it, spend the money and we’ll try to figure it out.” 

She says for the last six months, Friendship Centres have been responding as quickly as possible to ensure people’s needs are being met, from distributing food and supplies, including pre-made meals, to help with immediate needs to providing housing and employment support. Things have calmed somewhat, but she doesn’t expect this to last. 

In Fredericton, Patsy McKinney, the executive director of the city’s Friendship Centre, Under One Sky, explains that her small team was not equipped to respond to the community’s needs. “When [coronavirus] hit, we were so unprepared as a small non-profit, these families lost us. We were all they had, and then they lost us. Myself and my staff felt like we really dropped the ball.” 

McKinney says for the most part, families they serve were isolated even before the pandemic, as the majority are single mothers who have little to no family, financial, or other support. While she says there is no shortage of support services in Fredericton, she explains Indigenous people often face judgement at mainstream organizations, and are reluctant to seek support, turning to their Friendship Centre instead. 

As the centre received government and other grant funding during the pandemic, Under One Sky provided food and essentials as quickly as possible, but McKinney says this was the easy part. What was more difficult was dealing with mental health issues, which she says have reached the point of crisis. 

“Myself and my staff do not have the expertise for this,” she says. “These are incredibly marginalized communities and individuals, and could be teetering on the brink of things, and we had little to nothing in place to help them and support them.” 

For years, Under One Sky has been working to create wrap-around services, or multiple services under one roof, so the centre can provide a range of services on-site, instead of directing Indigenous people elsewhere, where they may face discrimiation or be uncomfortable. McKinney says mental health issues during the pandemic have created an urgence for these wrap-around services. In the interim, Under One Sky is partnering with mental health counsellors from the University of New Brunswick to support those who seek it. 

McKinney says this initiative, and others — she is hiring additional employees — are possible because of the recent funding, but shares that she is impatient. “Where was all of this money 10 years ago? Where was it a year ago? Now they’re throwing this money at me and I think, ‘I could have used this a year ago to develop programs and services.’” 

McKinney explains that managing the capital received through grants puts a strain on smaller Friendship Centres like Under One Sky, and adds that the federal government’s initial application process “pits [indigenous organizations] against one another.” A spokesperson from Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Outside of receiving funding, Formsma says Friendship Centres should be consulted when planning recovery initiatives. As the government has conversations around issues like childcare, infrastructure, and guaranteed basic income, she says Friendship Centres should be involved, adding that the government already has a mechanism to communicate with the centres — through Indigenous Services Canada. 

“We hope that they’re considering organizations like Friendship Centres during this time and we’re worried that they’re not,” she says. “Canada can’t reopen properly by leaving indigenous people behind.”