A Yukon blind spot, still ignored

Thanks to a panel discussion held in Whitehorse earlier this month, Canada is starting to look at the problem of fatherless children in aboriginal populations.

Thanks to a panel discussion held in Whitehorse earlier this month, Canada is starting to look at the problem of fatherless children in aboriginal populations.

But in the Yukon, where a quarter of the population is of First Nation ancestry, a traditional parenting program is cutting back.

For the first time in three years, the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre won’t offer a sewing program for First Nation mothers.

The loss of the two-month-long program of weekly meetings may not seem like a big deal but it’s a sign of a bigger problem, said Joe Migwans, who runs the program.

It brings together one or two elders with six to 12 mothers and families and only costs about $1,500 to $2,000, he said.

“This is part of his program that he’s not going to be able to continue on because he’s not receiving enough funding,” said Delilah Pillai, executive director of the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre.

The overall budget for all traditional parenting programming at the centre is $185,000 annually, said Pillai. That money, which comes from Health Canada, hasn’t been increased since 2001.

Prior to that there was only an increase of $4,000 or $5,000 since 1997, she added.

“Basically, if funding doesn’t increase, it comes at a cost to the program,” she said.

Programming costs increase slightly each year and, with no increase in funding, there’s no room to grow.

The programs can only afford to take in so many participants, but with the rising urban aboriginal population in Whitehorse, demand is growing.

The sewing class is only the most recent cut-back in traditional parenting programming at the centre, said Migwans.

The centre used to have a similar program specifically for fathers. The need for aboriginal fathers to be more positively involved in their families was the main focus of a recent Whitehorse panel discussion Migwans participated in for the CBC Radio’s program, The Current.

The centre also offered an on-the-land winter camp for families, said Migwans. The three days of family learning and relationship building out at Annie Smith’s Marsh Lake fish camp had been running since 2000. It also had to be cut because it became too expensive.

The cuts are forcing Migwans and the centre to make do with what they can. Migwans hopes to offer three, one-day camps for men in an attempt to replace the family winter camps, he said. But it can’t happen until the summer months, he said. Winter camping is too hard on the budget.

Migwans also offers training sessions for traditional parenting facilitators, like himself. These help bring some revenue in but it relies on Migwans using his own vehicle and paying for his own gas to travel to the communities.

The centre has also started putting externally-funded programs under the traditional parenting umbrella to help keep it alive, added Pillai.

The usually one-time, grant-based programs are plentiful at the centre, but lack the continuity and stability that good programming should have.

Currently, a language immersion program and experiential elders training have been pushed into Migwan’s department. Details for the language program are still being figured out, said Pillai, but funding for the elders program, which helps train elders on how best to impart their knowledge in urban settings, runs out in June.

The more First Nations people leave their communities and move to Whitehorse, the more they lose touch with their traditional values and the more demand there is on programs at the Whitehorse-based centre, said Migwans.

First Nation governments outside Whitehorse do partner with the centre on some programming, he said, but more needs to be done.

At the same time, with federal funding transfers based on status card numbers, not true membership, First Nations are finding their budgets stretched thin just within their communities.

Migwans remembers his own childhood growing up poor, something he still sees too often in Yukon’s First Nation families.

And when people are living below the poverty line, it’s the focus on their traditional values that tend to be forgotten first, Migwans explained.

“Anybody that’s got their basic needs is more apt to be healthy, functional people, raising their children together,” he said. “They’ve got all their basic needs met and then some.

“Really, (traditional values and lifestyle) is about independence and your ability to respond to your needs or your children’s needs in a good way.

“I’m frustrated because there’s so much that goes on here (at the centre). If only people could understood what it takes and how valuable this program is and the kinds of things that people could learn from it.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at