CAIRS defies death one month at a time

Sean Sidney credits CAIRS for keeping him sober. The Committee on Abuse In Residential Schools Society has a small space on Fourth Avenue. And the local carver found refuge in its even smaller wood shop.

Sean Sidney credits CAIRS for keeping him sober.

The Committee on Abuse In Residential Schools Society has a small space on Fourth Avenue.

And the local carver found refuge in its even smaller wood shop.

“I’ve been sober now 15 months,” says Sidney, who was hooked on drugs and alcohol. “I probably wouldn’t be sober that long if it wasn’t for CAIRS.”

But for the last six months, CAIRS has been fighting for its life.

During this year’s throne speech, the federal government announced it would not be continuing with the Aboriginal Healing Foundation – the national body that funds organizations like CAIRS.

“We got our notice in March that funding was cut,” says executive director Joanne Henry.

CAIRS was expected to close June 30.

Since then, it’s been struggling from month to month to keep its head above water.

Staff were chopped from six to just Henry and workshop facilitator Vern Swan.

“It’s important for the guys that are out on the streets now and are having a hard time, to have a place to go – someone they can come and talk to,” says Swan. “We’re here to listen and to talk with them and to guide them a little bit.”

“You really become a family here and start looking out for each other,” adds Henry.

When money for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was discontinued, former Indian and Northern Affairs minister Chuck Strahl emphasized that the fund had a set expiration date and that money has now been directed to settlement payments for survivors and programs run through Health Canada.

But Sidney prefers CAIRS to formal counseling.

“It helps me forget about what I need to forget about and learn what I need to learn for my carving,” he says. “Counseling is important for every person with substance abuse and child abuse problems. Counseling is really important.

“But there’s got to be something after that, after the counseling. That’s what I use CAIRS for.”

The territory isn’t going to step in and help fund CAIRS, said Premier Dennis Fentie in a previous interview.

Everyone was aware the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was going to come to an end, he said.

“I realize funding’s hard to come by,” said Sidney.

And federal and territorial governments are reluctant to support organizations like this, he said.

“But what they should really think about and consider is, how much more money would they be spending on me if I was to be getting into trouble or drinking?” he says.

“Just from the cops picking me up and throwing me into jail, that’s going to cost the government how many thousands of dollars? Whereas, I come into CAIRS and it costs the government nothing. And in fact, with the little bit of money that they might be chipping in, it’s benefiting them because it’s helping their citizens – Yukon citizens as well as the First Nations.”

Henry has lobbied Yukon First Nations for support.

But instead of funding, CAIRS has ended up with more work.

Communities have started bringing Henry and Swan in to hold local workshops.

And despite the fact that funding is only secure for a couple more months, Henry says they’ve already been booked through the summer.

“We go in there to get them to teach themselves, is what we do,” says Swan. “We help them set up (carving) shops and we teach them as much as we can about the stuff that we’re doing.”

More than anything, these community visits unify people, he says, mentioning one workshop that ended in divided families finally coming together and talking. Another workshop resulted in elders sharing stories that most people there had never heard before.

We remind people that it’s not about them, it’s about community, says Swan.

Henry has also lobbied the territorial government, writing letters to Health and Social Services Minister Glenn Hart.

But she hasn’t gotten a reply, she says.

Swan and Henry stay optimistic, keeping each other and the committee going.

“Our thing is always, ‘Well, I think we’re going to be OK.’ We’ve always said that,” says Henry. “We have yet to say, ‘We’re going to close.’ We’re OK for a couple of months, let’s put it that way.”

But funding is definitely not secure, she says, which is frustrating when there is not a single community in Yukon without residential school survivors.

“This place is needed,” she says. “We can’t close.”

CAIRS will be having an open house on December 21 from 1 to 4 p.m.

All are welcome – including Fentie and Hart, says Henry.

“Along with any Christmas envelopes they may want to bring,” she adds with a chuckle.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at