Current Problems

Health (18-24)

Counselling cut for B.C. First Nation survivors of residential schools who don’t have status cards

April 8, 2024

2,600 providers have four weeks to terminate or transfer their non-status clients out of their care

Requests for counselling assistance soared, says B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority after the 2021 discovery of possible unmarked graves at the old Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Requests for counselling assistance soared, says B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority after the 2021 discovery of possible unmarked graves at the old Kamloops Indian Residential School. PHOTO BY JONATHAN HAYWARD /THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Tyee: Vanouver Sun – The First Nations Health Authority is cutting off counselling coverage for former residential school students in B.C. and their families, as well as those of missing or murdered Indigenous women — unless they have a status card.

Registered clinical counsellors and clients from First Nations across B.C. are outraged by the sudden change, which was communicated to treatment providers in an email late last month.

“Only First Nations people with status will be eligible to register for counselling services effective immediately,” reads the health authority’s website. Among those affected are Métis and Nisga’a Nation peoples, and many others in B.C. who have Indigenous ancestry but don’t have a status card.

“This is going to cause a ripple effect of more hospitalizations, overdoses and suicides,” Sheri Stahl, counsellor and owner of Amethyst Therapy Inc. in Williams Lake, said.

Tens of thousands of First Nations clients had been receiving free counselling in B.C. through the health authority, which extended benefits to family members and descendants of residential school survivors and of missing or murdered Indigenous women.

But now, its 2,600 providers have four weeks to terminate or transfer their non-status clients out of their care. The authority is covering a maximum of four counselling sessions during the transition period.

“I have whole families who are going to be out of mental health services,” said Stahl, who has First Nation status with the Sto:lo Nation. “There will be hundreds of other First Nations in my rural area alone who are going to lose the ability to get counselling.”

Stahl, 35, whose regular counselling rate is $160 an hour, has been treating First Nation Health Authority clients for years at a discounted rate of $90 a session.

“Us counsellors, we’re not fighting about the money, we’re just mad the health authority gave us two week’s notice — we have a lot of vulnerable clients who, in many cases, have nowhere else to go.”

Stahl said it took her more than a decade to obtain her status under the federal Indian Act. She faced difficulties tracking down documents proving her father’s birthright in the Sto:lo Nation because he was removed by the federal child welfare system during the Sixties Scoop.

In a statement Monday, the First Nations Health Authority — which manages the delivery of First Nations health programs and services across B.C. — said it no longer has access to a registry of those entitled to receive benefits because they attended an Indian residential school.

“This resulted in an inability to verify (Indian residential school) counselling eligibility and a corresponding significant increase in costs,” the statement said. “As a result of these escalating costs we have made a decision to limit eligibility to First Nations people with Indian status. This aligns with all other health benefits administered by the FNHA.”

The authority noted First Nations people with status should not experience any change in access to counselling services and that Indian residential school survivors and their families can continue to receive emotional and cultural support from 11 First Nations organizations funded by the authority.

Katie Hughes, vice-president of the Authority’s public health response, told B.C. counsellors last Thursday during a virtual webinar that the reason for the cut was a lack of funding. The webinar was private but a participant gave Postmedia access.

Hughes said the health authority is running a multimillion-dollar deficit, which has increased year over year.

“So, while Indigenous Services Canada has provided some of the funding to offset that deficit, they have not provided enough to offset the whole $15 million … and they have indicated that there will be no further offsets of deficits.”

The mental health programs were created out of the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement in which the federal government pledged to compensate former residential school students and their families for mental health services.

“We have been working tirelessly across federal government and provincial partners to source additional funds so that the deficit didn’t appear overnight. It’s been something that we’ve been watching and tracking and trying to resolve, but we have not had a lot of success.”

In 2023, the organization received the majority of its $806.6 million revenue — $702.2 million — from the federal government, according to its annual report. The health authority is slated to receive a lesser $690 million in 2024, according to the federal government.

Jennifer Cooper, spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said Friday that since 2013, Canada has provided $95 million for the health authority’s Indian Residential Schools resolution health support program.

“Indigenous Services Canada recognizes that the FNHA has seen a significant increase in the demand for mental health counselling services over the past several years, with significant uptake having been linked directly to the confirmation of unmarked burials in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in May 2021.”

Cooper said that federal funding for the health authority continues to grow on an annual basis and is subject to an annual escalator.

“As a result, funding has been almost doubled in the funding agreement. This funding is flexible and can be used for a wide range of health programs and services as directed and determined by the FNHA, including on mental health and wellness programming.”

The sudden end to counselling coverage has ignited deep anguish among First Nations clients.

“It is like the floor was ripped out from underneath us,” said Victoria’s Daniel Sands, who has been receiving regular therapy sessions through the health authority for close to two years.

“I even found a counsellor who was Indigenous,” said Sands, 47, who is in recovery from a substance use disorder.

“We can talk about certain stuff in a few sentences and make much more progress than with the counsellor I had before. I was finally feeling like I was building trust with my counsellor and understanding my own trauma.”

With the eligibility change, Sands and their mother, Yvonne, will no longer be able to receive counselling.

“My mother, whose father Johny Bourgeois attended Grouard Indian Residential School in Alberta, gathered up all necessary documents herself and applied (to the federal government) for a status card three years ago. She’s called regularly to ask about its progress — and nothing.”

Sands said Friday: “I feel like because of what the health authority has done, my sobriety is at risk all over again. I’ve been having nightmares and I am feeling suicidal thoughts start to creep back in.”

Sarah Grochowski