Many of the leading foundations in Canada identify "Aboriginal Peoples or culture" as a priority. Many Canadians make donations to those foundations believing their money will be used to improve living conditions for First Nations people. But according to a study done by Cree lawyer Delia Opekokew, very little of this money ends up being allocated to First Nations people.
For example, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation provided grants of $15 million all over Canada in 2012. There is only one aboriginal culture grant, out of 10 grants listed that year, for $217,00, which was given to Corporation du Wapikoni mobile in Montreal. The Gordon Foundation lists "Aboriginal Peoples" as its priority interest, but there are no aboriginal recipients for 2012 when it provided over $1.8 million in donations. There are no aboriginal groups listed as having received a grant from the $4 million given out by the Joyce Foundation in 2013, despite the foundation's desire to fund aboriginal peoples.
Opekokew says this is a common trend among the leading foundations listed in Canada's top 50 "grant givers."
There are a variety of reasons these foundations are failing to fulfil their stated aims and objectives.
Opekokew, the second Treaty Indian woman to be called to the bar (following Winnipeg's Marion Meadmore) says part of the problem is First Nations are unaware of the foundations and simply have not applied for available funds. At the same time, Lisa Meeches of Manito Ahbee claims her organization has applied to many of the top 50 foundations in Canada without success. With the exception of the RBC and Winnipeg foundations, Manito Ahbee has encountered enormous difficulty accessing funds despite complying with their application processes fully and professionally.
If a highly respected organization like Manito Ahbee, with a successful track record that is supported by many of Manitoba's most prominent citizens, cannot access funds from the many foundations that claim to support aboriginal people and culture, what chance do other First Nations organizations have of accessing the billions of dollars that are supposed to be available?
Ann Chabot of Norton Indigenous Global Networks says staff and boards of foundations are not aware of the real needs of First Nations and they develop irrelevant programs and priorities based on outside or "white" perspectives. Chabot also claims foundations provide too much of their funding to non-aboriginal organizations to provide programs to and for aboriginal people when aboriginal people can do things for themselves. Except for the fact they do not have the money to deliver these programs (which is why they are applying to these foundations in the first place).
A major problem might also be the fact the guidelines for funding by these foundations are very specific and rigid. The organizations applying must meet a very bureaucratic set of criteria to be eligible. OK, you could say the foundations are being cautious in making sure the organizations that receive their funding are accountable, but is it right to make the claim you are supporting aboriginal people and culture when 90 per cent of organizations can't meet the guidelines set out?
Rebecca Adamson of the First People's Worldwide Foundation says the application processes are difficult and time consuming. Former provincial cabinet minister David Newman says dealing with the bureaucracy and rigid guidelines of foundations requires professional consultants who specialize in how to access funds from foundations. Again, these would be professional consultants aboriginal organizations cannot afford.
So, do we have a situation here where, covertly or overtly, the cause of aboriginal people is being used by outsiders to raise money for programs, services and organizations that are irrelevant and perhaps even contrary to the wishes of the First Nations they are supposed to benefit? It's not as if this never happened before; the most blatant example would be the sorry history of the Department of Indian Affairs.
First Nations activists like Opekokew recommend First Nations start to hold foundations accountable. More appropriately, perhaps, the kind Canadians who generously make donations to these foundations should take a closer look at what's going on here.
The bottom line is it is difficult for First Nations to raise money from foundations that are invariably difficult to approach. They are frequently unresponsive, require applications that take a lot of time and effort to complete and they reject more applications than they approve. As well, how many old-money foundations actually advertise on "the Rez"?
Maybe First Nations need to think about developing their own foundations based on their own value systems. And Canadians who donate to existing foundations that list "aboriginal people and culture" as a priority might want to ask how, and by how much.
Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.