In June, Saskatoon’s Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (ACC) was accepted as a funded agency by the United Way of Saskatoon.
While some United Ways in other parts of the country fund AIDS organizations, this marks the first time that a United Way in Canada has added a queer community organization to their list of agencies they fund on an ongoing basis. The ACC will receive a minimum of $30,000 this year with the likelihood of increased funding next year.
“We’re ecstatic about being accepted as a United Way agency,” says Bob Challis, ACC’s Business Manager. “It’s not just the funding but the stability it provides and the partnerships we can build with other United Way agencies. It provides a forum to educate other United Way agencies but also makes it easier to share expertise and programming with those agencies. It provides a sense of legitimacy to the larger community for the programs we provide.”
The ACC was started in 1991 as Gay & Lesbian Health Services of Saskatoon and has provided a variety of programs and services to Saskatoon’s queer community since then. In 1996 they became the first queer community organization in the country to receive ongoing core funding from a provincial government. They have also been involved in research on queer health and wellness issues and hosted Canada’s first queer health and wellness conference in Saskatoon in 2001. They provided support and expertise to help form the Canadian Rainbow Health Coalition which operates Canada’s largest website on queer health and wellness — rainbowhealth.ca — as well as the Outlive Homophobia social marketing campaign.
“While this funding will provide 10 percent of our operating budget it helps stabilize our core operations,” says Challis. “It also allows us breathing space to look for additional funding for the many programs needed in our queer community.”
Most queer community organizations in Canada have difficulties finding financial resources to maintain their programs. Many rely on short term grants to survive which means that programs and staff exist when a grant is obtained only to see those staff laid off and the programs end once the funding grant is ended.
Since the Harper government came to power, it has become even more difficult to fund queer community groups with the Conservatives cancelling funding programs or altering them in ways that make it difficult for queer groups to access. Bureaucrats have been warned that they are not allowed to fund any groups that are involved in advocacy work and certainly queer issues are seen as advocacy by the Conservatives.
Over the years many queer groups accessed funding through the Crime Prevention Program to operate programs supporting queer youth. The Conservatives changed the criteria for funding under that program to focus on issues like youth gangs and drug related offensives rather than initiatives that address prevention issues in those populations likely to be victims of crime. The cuts to HIV/AIDS programming by the Harper government has also meant that those funding streams are no longer available to queer groups addressing the core issues — like homophobia, substance abuse and low self-esteem — that cause people to engage in risky and unhealthy behaviours.
With the cuts in federal programs, the Avenue Community Centre was finding it difficult to maintain programs as 30 percent of their funding has traditionally come through national programs. Challis said the United Way funding will definitely help to fill in those cuts in funding.
For the past three years the ACC has operated a small office in Prince Albert (PA), 120km north of Saskatoon, with support from local volunteers. United Way funding will help sustain that small office which provides valuable services for the northern part of the province.
“This funding allows us to better support the PA project on a small scale,” says Challis. “There are good things happening up there.”
Challis says the calls they receive from people in the PA area are very different from the ones they receive from Saskatoon and area callers. “There are a lot of issues around coming out, substance abuse and violence. Many are calling because they are being physically and verbally abused by partners or family members. “The new funding will allow us to continue to support the valuable PA office,” says Challis.
“We were impressed with the programs provided by the Avenue Community Centre,” says Sheri Benson, director of community services with the United Way. “They really show what a community based organization should be like,” she added.
The Saskatoon United Way has traditionally supported long established and safe groups, as do most other United Ways in Canada, like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Club, John Howard Society, Canadian Mental Health Association and the Red Cross.
However, Benson said they have realized that they need to “fund groups that are marginalized because they are falling through the cracks.” Benson added that once they fund a group “they are partners for a long time.”