Canada’s Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF)

In early 1998, the government of Canada committed CAD350 million to healing initiatives for Aboriginal communities. The aim was to support and initiate healing for those who were directly or indirectly harmed by their communities’ experiences within the Canadian system of “Indian Residential Schools”. From the 19th century onwards, those institutions had subjected an estimated 150,000 children of Aboriginal descent to abuse, causing severe and unresolved trauma.[1] The funds provided led to the formation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) – an Aboriginal-run, not-for-profit corporation that operated from 1998 until 2014 and funded a variety of healing initiatives throughout the country. The healing initiatives were designed by independent individuals, communities and institutions that secured funding through project proposals approved by the AHF. Throughout its mandate, the AHF received additional grants of CAD165 million, generated income through investments, and received CAD15 million in compensation from Canadian churches.

The AHF’s work was very well received. Reported impacts of its programmes include an increase in agency, awareness, self-esteem, self-care, intergenerational understanding, and cultural knowledge. Survivor involvement was a key factor in the AHF’s success. Due to the complex nature of the issues addressed, one of the key findings of the AHF was that long and consistent efforts (10+ years) had to be made to achieve sustainable improvements in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of programme’s participants.[2]

The challenge

In the 19th century, in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church,[3] Canada established residential schooling for children of indigenous descent, the primary aim being to force assimilation and “kill the Indian in the child”.[1][4]  Aboriginal children were thus separated from their families and communities, their languages and identities erased in order to educate them in a Western way and force integration into Euro-Canadian society.[5] Underfunding, poorly trained staff, corporal punishment, and emotional, physical and sexual abuse were the norm in these schools, leading to sickness, trauma and death.[3][6] Officially, Canadian residential schools only operated between 1892 and 1969. However, some of the schools were still operating in the 1980s.[3] It is estimated that 150,000 children were subjected to the residential school system prior to its abolition, and that nearly half of those in attendance did not survive, dying of mistreatment, malnutrition or disease.[4]

Those who returned home displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, in many cases, did not manage to reintegrate into their native communities.[5] Due to past losses and trauma in connection to slavery, famine and assimilative pressures, to name but a few, Canadian Aboriginal communities were already under strain and largely unable to support their members’ recovery from abusive experiences.[5] Intergenerational trauma, therefore, remains unresolved, creating a legacy of “lateral violence, suicide, poverty, alcoholism, lack of parenting skills, weakening or destruction of cultures and languages, and lack of capacity to build and sustain healthy families and communities”.[7] In consequence, Aboriginal communities suffer social, political and economic disintegration.[3] As a result of these traumas, the indigenous populations of Canada are experiencing increased rates of addiction, homelessness, and suicide.[5][8][9] Contemporary structural and systemic inequities, such as personal-level and institutional-level racism, are further sources of oppression and cultural alienation, aggravating intergenerational trauma by reinforcing ancestral stories of oppression.[10] 

However, national inquiries have repeatedly called for Canada to recognise the rich contributions that diverse Aboriginal peoples offer for Canadian society. For example, the 1995 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated that “Aboriginal people are poised to assume a vital role in shaping the future of Canada”.[11] In 2003 the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples urged the public to “move beyond the near-exclusive focus on problems and begin to explore a more constructive approach, one emphasizing the contribution Aboriginal youth now make, and can continue to make, to Canada's future”.[12

The initiative

In March 1998, as a response to ongoing protests and demands for inquiry and compensation about the legacy of abuse in residential schools, the AHF was founded to provide healing for Aboriginal communities. Equipped with an initial grant of CAD350 million provided by the federal government, the Aboriginal-run, not-for-profit and self-governing corporation set out to support community-based healing initiatives to address the legacy of physical, sexual, mental, cultural, and spiritual abuses at residential schools and its intergenerational impacts.[5] Until the AHF closed in 2014, it had received additional grants of CAD165 million, generated income through investments, and received CAD15 million in compensation from Canadian churches. The AHF invested a total of CAD537 million in 1,345 community projects, which were predominantly healing facilities.[7]

On launch, the foundation established its base in Ottawa, hired staff (of whom 90 percent were of Aboriginal descent), and held information sessions across the country. The AHF consulted with survivors and survivor organisations, and – based on knowledge gained through these consultations – developed criteria for funding proposals and drafted an ethics guideline, a framework for project evaluation, and a programme handbook. The initiative also adopted a mission, vision and value statement. In late 1998, the AHF launched three funding lines and sent out calls for application, the funding lines being:

  • “Developing and enhancing aboriginal capacity and community therapeutic healing...
  • “Healing Centres...
  • “Restoring balance and honour & history.”[3]

Through its mandate, the AHF funded a variety of programmes. Projects revolved around empowerment, prevention and awareness, treatment, aftercare, community development, capacity building, and public education,[3] Nearly two-thirds of funds were invested in healing projects, 13 percent in prevention programmes, and 8 percent in knowledge building.[7]

Initiatives funded by the AHF included sex offender programmes, educational projects, counselling and trauma work, training of community members, support for traditional therapeutic approaches, and the development of Aboriginal-specific materials.[3] In its first decade of operation, more than 110,000 individuals took part in AHF-funded community-projects. About 65 percent of these individuals had never participated in a similar programme before.[5]

The theory behind AHF’s operations was that systematically using community projects to strengthen individuals of Aboriginal descent mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally would increase their general wellbeing and help them regain control of their lives. Subsequently, this experience would “become embedded in social memory” and be passed on “to successive generations, enabling members of the community to participate in self-healing, reclaim their spirituality and culture, and break through the interconnected bonds of loss, grief, and sadness”.[5] To that end, most AHF projects implemented a combination of traditional, Western, and Aboriginal healing techniques.[1]

In its final report, the AHF provided a logic model that illustrates its differentiated, multi-dimensional approach as a healing initiative. The model demonstrates how the overall quality of Aboriginal life in Canada was heightened by combinations of beneficial activities and interventions on the community level. It measures this increase in quality of life through both short-term outcomes and long-term goals. The ultimate goal was to break the cycle of physical and sexual abuse.[13]

Due to the AHF’s efforts and unrelenting lobbying by survivor organisations, public awareness was heightened within Canadian society, leading to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006, “the largest court-mandated settlement in Canadian history”.[1] In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologised to Aboriginal communities for their having been subjected to a policy that “has caused great harm, and has no place in our country”.[1] These events – the prime minister’s apology and the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – seem to have been perceived by the Canadian Government as closing this chapter of Canadian history, leading to the government’s decision to provide no further funds for the AHF.[1] Despite public support, positive programme evaluation and strong demand to participate in its programmes, the AHF had to shut down operations in September 2014.[14]

The public impact

For a number of reasons, the impacts of AHF programmes are predominantly captured through qualitative studies. This is partly due to the initiative’s complex and multifactorial approach, which makes it difficult to attribute specific outcomes to specific measures taken. Predominantly, the broad nature of the term “healing” presents a challenge. As the then department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) stated in a report on the AHF’s work: “there is no clearly defined or widely accepted agreement on what it means to be ‘healed’ from the trauma of the residential school experience”.[2] Therefore, it is very difficult to measure outcomes in a quantitative fashion. Furthermore, data concerning wider social indicators such as suicide rates, physical health, and poverty within Aboriginal communities was not available when the AHF set up operations, and therefore could not be measured against data made available subsequently. As INAC added: “without such a baseline, it is not possible to chart the extent to which communities may or may not be ‘healing’ in these areas”.[2]

However, over the term of its mandate, the AHF produced a list of qualitative indicators for improvement, and qualitative data was continually collected. James B. Waldram pointed out in an AHF report published in 2008 that, among other factors, subjective, behavioural and attitudinal changes were considered as indicators for public impact.[6] In case study interviews, the programme’s participants, community leaders, and staff reported on several improvements achieved through the AHF’s work, indicating that its objectives had been met. Assessments of AHF programmes were “overwhelmingly positive”.[2] The impacts named included:

  • “Learning to take action and responsibility for one’s health and healing...
  • “Increased community capacity for healing, as indicated by increased awareness”[2]
  • Heightened empathy
  • Changed attitudes towards family members (particularly survivors of residential schools)
  • Improved intergenerational relations
  • Increases in self-esteem, cultural knowledge and pride
  • Acquisition of tools for self-care in connection to trauma and negative emotions
  • Decreased sense of isolation
  • A decrease in anger and resistance to healing initiatives
  • Decreased shame in Aboriginal identity
  • Decreased tolerance for sexual abuse at the community level.[2]

Many respondents noted that the AHF programmes enabled them to live more fully, some even stating that “this programme saved my life!”[2]

Besides improvements in personal and communal relationships, participants noted that treatment has led to a rediscovery of purpose in their lives.[6] As Marlene Brant Castellano and Linda Archibald state in their 2007 report, based on three national surveys (2000, 2002, 2004), five focus groups, thirteen case studies, 1,479 individual participant questionnaires (IPQs), and file review of thirty-six AHF-funded projects, participants also felt that “they were better prepared to handle difficult issues (72 percent), to move beyond past traumas (76 percent), to handle future trauma (79 percent), and to find ways to get support once the project was over (69 percent). Project teams, however, noted a wide variability in ‘success’ between individuals. This was attributed primarily to the individual’s ‘readiness to heal’ and the fit between participants’ needs and the intervention offered.”[5] Constant and, with time, ever-increasing demand for the initiative’s healing and community projects further suggests that the AHF’s efforts positively impacted its target groups. From 2007/08 to 2008/09 alone, participation increased by 40 percent. At that time, 27,541 individuals were participating in AHF programmes.[2]

(72 percent), to move beyond past traumas (76 percent), to handle future trauma (79 percent), and to find ways to get support once the project was over (69 percent). Project teams, however, noted a wide variability in ‘success’ between individuals. This was attributed primarily to the individual’s ‘readiness to heal’ and the fit between participants’ needs and the intervention offered The AHF’s primary stakeholders – individuals of Aboriginal descent – strongly supported the initiative throughout its mandate, and representatives of government extended AHF’s mandate beyond its initial timeframe.

The AHF’s target groups, and therefore its primary stakeholders, were the ethnically diverse and widespread Aboriginal communities of Canada. Due to a long history of suffering at the hands of Euro-Canadian society, these groups would – despite an urgent need for intervention – very probably have resisted participation in government initiatives directed at healing.[15] The fact that the AHF was not a government institution but an Aboriginal-run non-for-profit organisation, primarily employing staff of Aboriginal descent, helped to build trust.

To dispel concern, promote its healing initiative, and engage potential beneficiaries, the AHF took a number of measures, such as holding information sessions, involving communities in the design of its programmes, soliciting feedback, and helping with the application process.[3] The great demand for participation in AHF programmes and the large number of applicants throughout the AHF’s mandate suggest that the initiative was very successful in engaging its primary stakeholders.[2]

Regarding its relationship with the Canadian government, the AHF was created as a shared-governance corporation, funded by the government but largely operating of its own accord.[1] Two government representatives sat on the board of directors and held limited veto powers. Without those assenting votes, the AHF could not affect changes to the incorporating documents or the funding agreement or dissolve the corporation. Furthermore, the AHF reported to federal ministers in regular meetings and briefings and submitted audited financial statements and annual reports to parliament. [1] Apart from these requirements, the federal government confined its involvement to programme evaluations, in which it found the organisation to be effective.

[5] Constant and, with time, ever-increasing demand for the initiative’s healing and community projects further suggests that the AHF’s efforts positively impacted its target groups. From 2007/08 to 2008/09 alone, participation increased by 40 percent. At that time, 27,541 individuals were participating in AHF programmes.[2]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Fair

As the AHF launched its healing initiative, it had to overcome a significant amount of scepticism from the general public. Journalists often reported negatively on the AHF, terming it a “nest of maggots”, for example, or insinuating corruption and misuse of funds.[1] Many unfavourable media reports focused on its supposed burden on taxpayers. An analysis of media reports in February 2001 found that 64 percent of articles on the AHF and its work focused on lawsuits, while only 25 percent dealt with abuse, trauma, or the impact of healing and compensation.[1

The former AHF director of communications, Wayne K. Spears, argued that journalists at large perceived the initiative to be an expression of an institutional crisis, “a dangerous challenge to the establishment by what Noel Wright (of North Shore News, in Vancouver) termed ‘the native victims industry’”.[1] With time, the AHF’s reputation improved, due to favourable evaluation and an increase in public awareness of the importance of healing measures. Support grew, and journalists such as Shelagh Rogers and Marie Wadden wrote a number of articles stressing the importance of the AHF’s work.[1] The shutdown of the initiative in 2014 was met with public outrage.[4][15][19][20]

Stakeholder Engagement Good

The AHF’s primary stakeholders – individuals of Aboriginal descent – strongly supported the initiative throughout its mandate, and representatives of government extended AHF’s mandate beyond its initial timeframe.

The AHF’s target groups, and therefore its primary stakeholders, were the ethnically diverse and widespread Aboriginal communities of Canada. Due to a long history of suffering at the hands of Euro-Canadian society, these groups would – despite an urgent need for intervention – very probably have resisted participation in government initiatives directed at healing.[15] The fact that the AHF was not a government institution but an Aboriginal-run non-for-profit organisation, primarily employing staff of Aboriginal descent, helped to build trust.

To dispel concern, promote its healing initiative, and engage potential beneficiaries, the AHF took a number of measures, such as holding information sessions, involving communities in the design of its programmes, soliciting feedback, and helping with the application process.[3] The great demand for participation in AHF programmes and the large number of applicants throughout the AHF’s mandate suggest that the initiative was very successful in engaging its primary stakeholders.[2]

Regarding its relationship with the Canadian government, the AHF was created as a shared-governance corporation, funded by the government but largely operating of its own accord.[1] Two government representatives sat on the board of directors and held limited veto powers. Without those assenting votes, the AHF could not effect changes to the incorporating documents or the funding agreement or dissolve the corporation. Furthermore, the AHF reported to federal ministers in regular meetings and briefings and submitted audited financial statements and annual reports to parliament. [1] Apart from these requirements, the federal government confined its involvement to programme evaluations, in which it found the organisation to be effective.

Political Commitment Good

The government repeatedly allocated funds to the AHF. However, those funds were provided after years of continuous lobbying by Aboriginal spokespersons and survivor organisations. That the healing needs of Aboriginal communities were officially recognised and addressed in 1998 is largely due to the commitment of INAC representatives.

Beginning in the 1980s, survivor organisations and Aboriginal communities urged the government to act on the issue of residential schools, at times even threatening violence. In 1988, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Georges Erasmus, stated that the government was “dealing with fire. We say, Canada, deal with us today because our militant leaders are already born. We cannot promise that you are going to like the kind of violent political action we can just about guarantee the next generation is going to bring to our reserves”.[16] As tensions grew, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) in 1991. Its task was to examine the historical relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal communities.[1]

The RCAP’s multivolume final report was published in 1996. It emphasised, together with land disputes and the Indian Act, the issue of Indian residential schools.[1] The report’s gruesome findings led to the creation of the policy, Gathering Strength, Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, which aimed “to begin a process of reconciliation and renewal with Aboriginal Peoples”.[17] Part of this policy was the “commitment of CAD350 million to support community-based healing initiatives”.[3] Above all, the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jane Stewart, pushed for the provision of these funds. She prevailed with the help of the minister of finance, Bill Morneau, and the prime minister, Jean Chrétien. In early 1998, the AHF received the CAD350 million, indeed it had been founded for the purpose of distributing these funds.[1]

Over the course of the initiative, the Canadian government provided additional funds to the AHF in 2005 (CAD40 million) and in 2007 (CAD125 million), the latter payment forming part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.[7] Thereafter, the newly-elected and conservative government of Stephen Harper ceased to provide financial support for the AHF’s work. Instead, the sum of CAD199 million from the 2010 budget was to be directed to Health Canada. In response, Aboriginal leaders asserted that the AHF had developed unique approaches tailored to Aboriginal healing needs and that Health Canada’s programmes were not as effective. The minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Chuck Strahl, tried to justify the decision by stating that “the foundation’s funding was never meant to last forever”.[18] The decision was upheld, despite public protest, petitions from government committees, and positive reviews, including a report by INAC.[1][2]

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The main objective of the AHF was to promote reconciliation and provide healing and community-building opportunities for the Aboriginal populations of Canada.[21] Throughout implementation, a large variety of programmes were funded to address and improve the unfavourable circumstances people of Aboriginal descent found themselves in due to a legacy of abuse, racism and neglect. To that end, projects funded by the AHF provided healing opportunities, counselling, community activities, and awareness programmes, and addressed a large number of issues like heightened rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and sexual abuse within Aboriginal communities.[22] However, the broad nature of the term “healing” presented a challenge, because it made it difficult to evaluate the programme’s effectiveness.

Evidence Weak

Due to the singular nature of the AHF’s work, no evidence from similar projects could be considered when determining the policy direction of this initiative. As INAC’s 2009 report stated, “Aboriginal healing of IRS [Indian Residential Schools] effects is a highly specialised area, and there is limited research available for comparative purposes and best practice knowledge”.[2] Additionally, the tight schedule – government funds were warranted in early 1998, and the AHF was founded only weeks after that – hindered the implementation of pilot projects. The AHF also addressed concerns by involving target communities in the design of its programmes.

The AHF invested significant resources in the qualitative evaluation of its projects, which informed the direction of the initiative after it was established (see ‘Measurement’).

Feasibility Fair

The AHF’s mandate resulted from the policy set out in Gathering Strength, Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan,[17] which was implemented to start a process of reconciliation between the dominant Euro-Canadian communities and communities of Aboriginal descent.[3] Because the AHF was founded in order to allocate funds to the healing process, its financial needs were not assessed in advance. Rather, the project was designed to fit the means, and subsequently, the AHF successfully acquired larger sums to meet the demand for its healing initiatives.

Evaluations of AHF programmes have suggested that sustainable healing processes are a long-term undertaking and take at least ten years of continued engagement. The lack of long-term funding for projects became an issue.[2][5] As INAC noted in its 2009 report, “a lack of costs data per project per fiscal year within Annual Reports; a shortage of programme delivery costs in general, and a lack of any true comparators, inhibit the ability to make a cost-effectiveness analysis”.[2] The evidence that is available suggests that funding was insufficient, with 56% of AHF-funded projects not able to meet healing needs and 36% maintaining a waiting list.[13] An estimated CAD141 million would have been required to address project needs.[13] The lack of funding is possibly related to the increased recognition of AHF’s mission following the Indian Settlement Agreement and the public apology by Prime Minister Harper, which led to increased participation in AHF programs. The time-limited funding was inappropriate for therapeutic healing as thirty-six months is a minimum time to move through needs identification, outreach & initiation of therapeutic healing. Many first-time participants did not have the opportunity to take part for an appropriate period of time as operations were shut down in 2014. In total, less than 1/3 of all projects received AHF funding for thirty-six months or longer.[13]

Action

Management Strong

The AHF’s work was managed through a centre of operations located in Ottawa, and its actions were overseen by the AHF board. Projects funded by the AHF were not implemented by the board or the AHF directly but designed by communities and independent institutions that then applied for funding through project proposals. Over time, the AHF refined and developed its criteria for project approval. INAC’s 2009 report concluded that the Government of Canada should extend its support for the AHF, because there was “almost unanimous agreement among those canvassed that the AHF has been very successful at both achieving its objectives and in governance and fiscal management”. Furthermore, “the AHF has been noted as having achieved excellence in governance, and is cited internationally as an effective organisation”.[2]

Measurement Strong

Over the course of its existence, the AHF published annual reports, instigated a large number of studies, developed a list of qualitative criteria for impact, and engaged in discussion with target groups, implementing community feedback in the process. Strategic planning sessions were held with staff to discuss possible improvements.[3]

The AHF sought counsel and assigned evaluation proceedings; findings were tracked accordingly, prompting the necessary adjustments. This was made possible by the strong commitment of community project staff, who participated in research, reported on participation and outcomes, and mapped promising healing practices. Approaches were adjusted by implementing data contained in self-reports from projects and participants.[5] As no previous projects existed that the AHF could have measured its work against, it had to rely on participants’ statements, staff feedback, suggestions made by scientists, and the findings of independent institutions that evaluated AHF programmes.

The qualitative studies conducted by the AHF included three national surveys (2000, 2002, 2004), five focus groups, thirteen case studies, 1,479 individual participant questionnaires (IPQs), and file review of thirty-six AHF-funded projects.[5] Canadian Aboriginal academics have highlighted that oral or narrative methods may be more culturally appropriate, pointing to the importance of qualitative methods such as interviews. These qualitative methods allow the outcomes of successful healing to be understood through issues deemed important by communities.[10] This approach is reflected in the INAC evaluation, which stated that certainty of attribution of outcomes to program activities is not possible by strict evaluation standards; however, there is a high degree of consistency in the data collected, which increases confidence in the findings. The evaluation highlighted overall findings which show such a dramatic rise in program enrolments (over 40 percent), and the overwhelmingly positive assessment of AHF programs by participants and key informants in communities (some of whom were not directly connected to the program).[23]

The AHF report also notes difficulties with the concept of ‘best practices’ around Aboriginal healing, as ‘best practice’ is primarily a Western concept emphasizing replicability and an empirical evidence base. Instead, the AHF uses 'promising healing practices,' defined as: “Models, approaches, techniques and initiatives that are based on Aboriginal experiences; that feel right to Survivors and their families; and that result in positive changes in people’s lives.”[10]

The AHF was also able to gather sufficient evidence to develop the AHF Healing Framework.[13] The framework reflects the idea of healing as a multidimensional endeavour that includes several necessary elements. The AHF found that initiatives targeting the Aboriginal populations of Canada should reflect Aboriginal values, encourage participants to reclaim their cultural heritage and incorporate traditional activities such as pow wows to be successful.

Alignment Good

As demonstrated by the high and ever-increasing demand for participation in the initiative’s programmes, the interests of the AHF and its target groups were well aligned. However, alignment was achieved over time and through the AHF’s consistent and significant efforts to reach out to communities. On launch, the initiative was met with some scepticism by survivors and other members of Aboriginal communities, because many were not yet ready to talk about the painful experiences associated with the system of residential schools.[7]

The AHF met concerns by engaging in conversation and, with time, managed to raise awareness of the importance of healing. The AHF implemented suggestions and regularly organised informational sessions to keep communities up-to-date on its operations. “As the first mandate of the AHF was winding down, communities made urgent pleas that the work of healing must continue to bring a degree of closure for those who had come forward for help, and to reach out to those who were just becoming aware of the possibility of healing.” This suggests that there was close alignment between the AHF and the Aboriginal communities it was set up to serve.[5]