Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology for decades of abuse in residential schools might well be tarnished if Ottawa doesn't reinstate funding for support programs, say aboriginal leaders.
"In the apology, he did commit to walk with us on our healing journey," Charlene Belleau, manager of the Indian residential schools unit with the Assembly of First Nations, told an emotional Vancouver news conference.
"So it's important, I think, to make sure that the prime minister, on behalf of the government of Canada, keeps to those commitments," she said Wednesday in reference to Harper's 2008 apology in the House of Commons.
Belleau, along with several residential school survivors, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, called on the federal government to reinstate financial support for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
The foundation provides culturally appropriate community services for residential school survivors across the country, but its funding ran out on March 31.
Belleau said 134 of the foundation's projects have since been halted.
The federal government argued the foundation, established in 1998, was never meant to last forever and additional funds were set aside in the budget for Health Canada to deal specifically with mental-health issues among survivors.
But with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission getting set to launch hearings and commemorative events into residential schools, Belleau said that simply isn't good enough.
"(The Health Canada plan is) a government-driven process where they determine the criteria," she said.
"Through the healing foundation, we have a community-driven process," she said. "Our own people run those projects. Health Canada is not in the same position to be able to provide that community-based service."
Belleau said the healing foundation's programs have proven particularly effective in helping survivors disclose the sexual abuse they suffered.
Barney Williams Jr., 70, attended a residential school on Vancouver Island.
He said the foundation's services have helped him better come to grips with the "atrocities" he and others witnessed and lived through.
"The program that I'm privileged to be part of provides a lot of support for not only myself but for hundreds of survivors that have finally found a place to go," he said.
"It's really heartbreaking for somebody like myself when you know the experience that you've gone through personally and then you think of someone else that may never get that opportunity."
Williams, who spoke with reporters while his granddaughter sat in his lap, said he's been on a lifelong journey to healing and wasn't able to talk about his experiences until the last decade.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, leader of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, sent a letter to Prime Minister Harper on the issue last month and said he's infuriated by the funding cut.
"To reduce the responsibility on the part of the government that was reflected . . . in the apology to a very cold, calculated fiscal decision flies in the face of the apology that was issued by the prime minister and, in my view, exposes the hypocrisy of the Conservative government of this country," he said.
"We will not stand idly by and watch our residential school survivors continue to suffer."
In his apology, Harper said generations of racist policy was meant to "kill the Indian in the child."
Sara MacIntyre, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office, said Ottawa isn't closing the book on the foundation entirely.
"Obviously, the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation is important in providing healing programs and services to address the experiences of former students at the Indian residential schools," she said in an interview.
"Twelve healing centres will continue to provide services until March 2012, and, as noted already in this year's budget as well, we will be providing an additional $199 million over the next three years to provide emotional, cultural and professional support for former students."
Belleau said the government's understanding of that figure is far different from the view held by aboriginal leaders.
"The $199 million was set aside for implementation of the Indian residential school settlement agreement," she said. "It does not say, 'Here is this many million dollars for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation."'
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl was not available for an interview.
Last month, Strahl said communities will not be left stranded and there's extensive programming in multiple departments to ensure all former residential school students receives the help they need.
But Samaya Jardey, spokeswoman for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, said she's already heard from victims who don't know where they can go.
"We have former students of residential schools coming forward to us and saying, 'The government didn't ask us if we are healed, they've just decided for us that we're done,"' she said.
"This void is not being filled by any other Health Canada or health support services that are out there. It's very unique, what the Aboriginal Healing Foundation offers in terms of healing for our people."