HALIFAX — Several initiatives in support of the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre’s Kitpu Youth Program are advancing at full speed as individuals, organizations and businesses continue to come forward offering their support.
“What’s blown my mind is the people I’d expect last to be behind this cause are involved and have been at meetings,” said campaign organizer Ardath Whynacht at a community meeting Tuesday evening. When asked who she means, Whynacht replied: “individuals who have never shown an interest, to my knowledge, in social justice pursuits inherently knew that there was something incredibly wrong about that program being shut down.”
Whynacht called the first meeting on this issue on June 19, a week after it was discovered that the Kitpu Youth Program was a victim of the federal government freezing funding for the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth (CCAY) programs. She said she was astounded by the turnout.
Since then, Whynacht said support has grown “exponentially,” with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Sisters of Charity, Wade Atlantic, the North End Business Association, the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council, the Bus Stop Theatre and a UPS store in Dartmouth aligning with this cause. Dalhousie’s student union will be voting on a motion this evening as to whether to officially support the program as well, said union vice president Aaron Beale.
Initially, the community support group planned to focus on pressuring the government to reinstate the CCAY funds. A national day of action was planned for July 12 with the slogan is “walk with fire and light.” Friendship centres across the province have been contacted requesting their participation; Goose Bay, Victoria, Vancouver, Charlottetown and Saskatchewan have replied positively so far.
The Halifax edition will feature a rally at Grand Parade and an illuminated march to the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre with flashlights, candles and other objects.
While pressuring the government to backtrack on its decision is still a priority, Whynacht said the group must now also focus on emergency fundraising to keep the Kitpu Youth Program running in the interim — and possibly for the distant future should the campaigning fall flat. She is concerned that should the program stay in limbo for too long, the Centre might lose contact with the youth it services.
Whynacht said the Centre needs $40,000 to maintain the program two days a week for the remainder of the year. But, she added, “in order to restore it to its previous funding level, we need more than triple that.”
An art auction is being held July 13 at the Bus Stop Theatre, displaying donations from local Indigenous artists, including Leonard Paul and Alan Syliboy. A dance party and live band performance will follow.
The youth who attended the Kitpu program are also organizing an all-ages event featuring performances and a hip-hop competition. The date and location are in the works. They are selling buttons to help support the cost of these events.
Whynacht said the Kitpu campaign finds its leveraging strength in the idea that youth are working to support other youth, and that people from without and within the Indigenous community believe in this program.
“As someone who lives on Mi'kmaq territory, I don't think it should just be up to the Mi'kmaq people to ensure that their culture survives,” said Whynacht.
While she isn’t wholly confident that the government will unfreeze the CCAY funding, Whynacht said the recent changes made by Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney to refugee healthcare cuts demonstrates the power of public pressure.
“We don't want Aboriginal culture to disappear in Halifax. It's something that I'm proud to have in this city and grateful for and it's something that is really positive for youths that are living off reserve,” she said. “So, for me, the biggest threat is that culture not being as visible and as celebrated as it is now. It's already not good enough but to lose that program we're going to keep sliding down the slippery hole of it not being respected or admired at all.”