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Victoria Native Friendship Centre loses vital funding for language revitalization program

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Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC) staff worry they’ll have to scale back a program that teaches hundreds of people Indigenous languages.

Staff learned last month a federal funding contract would not be renewed for the Urban Indigenous Language Hub, which teaches seven languages, including Nuu-chah-nulth and Cree.

“It was really heartbreaking, to be honest, and at this point now I’m just determined to find a way to make it work,” said Lisa Mercure, VNFC’s Indigenous culture and traditions coordinator.

A previous two-year agreement with the federal Department of Canadian Heritage provided $516,600 to the program. The department does not publicly discuss funding requests, a spokesperson said in an email to CTV News.

“What we fear is what a delay or what a gap in this learning and teaching environment will mean for people in their progress as learners,” VNFC executive director Ron Rice said, noting many fluent speakers are nearing the end of their lives.

“When you think in terms of languages going extinct, that means people who speak it are dying.”

The funding — which helped pay for teachers, meals and transport for elders — was likely awarded to another Indigenous organization, Rice said.

“Indigenous language has been part of an assimilation experiment for the last four generations. It’s going to take us a little while to regain those skills,” he said.

“So to think that after three years or four years, you can take the funding and give it to somebody else, is only going to set them up for failure.”

The language hub has not lost all of its funding, however.

Moving forward, the plan is to use funds from the province and the National Association of Friendship Centres to offer a scaled-back version of the program, “including limiting or maybe having to cancel some classes,” Mercure said.

“In late November, I reached out to the federal Minister of Canadian Heritage Pascale St-Onge and stressed B.C.'s commitment to working on long-term, predictable funding in partnership with Canada,” B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin said in a statement.

“Clearly there is more work to be done as Crown governments to support First Nations language revitalization."

VNFC staff are lobbying elected officials and are seeking community donations to support the language classes.

“It would be great to have some embedded, core funding,” Rice said.

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