In December 2019, a couple blissful months before a global pandemic ravaged the world, Wanda Brascoupé was discussing with philanthropy experts how to better distribute resources to both on-reserve and urban Indigenous communities. Their conversations plotted out what would later become the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund (IPRF).
Brascoupé says that everyone thought it was a good idea, but some worried that things were moving too fast. “At that time, we had advisors, including [now Canada’s Governor-General] Mary Simon, who said that when a whale comes into the community, you don’t pick the time,” Brascoupé shared. “The whale is in the community, and everyone just needs to do their part.”
Then the world shifted with Covid-19, and the IPRF was given a new mission and a new urgency.
The IPRF then found fertile ground, supporting everything from non-profits to charities to First Nations themselves. “The consensus was: let’s do it in the least harmful and most efficient way possible to support the ideas and brilliance communities have in answering wherever their community is at,” she added.
Even with a Covid focus, the funding was open to just about anything. “We never pre-described what a community could apply for,” she said.
“We focus on ideas rather than resources. We ask people to come like they’re hunting or fishing. Take what you need, leave some behind so we can reach more people. Unlearn that we have to ask for three times what we want so we get a quarter of what we need. We simply say we trust you. You tell us what you need.”
The IPRF accepts requests for funding – what they call bundles – from $5,000 to $30,000, up to twice a year – meaning groups can access up to $60,000 a year. Brascoupé describes the funding as fitting primarily into three areas: food sovereignty, food justice and food security; wellness, cultural and mental health; and connectivity and capacity building.
As the world entered lockdowns and work-from-home orders and meetings and education moved online, the IPRF was able to respond to a dearth of internet infrastructure in communities and organizations, including in health care.
Since its first round of funding in July 2020 until the end of 2021, the IPRF has supported 316 communities and organizations, according to its annual report. In 2021, that meant giving out over $4 million to Indigenous communities and groups. Including groups whose applications were not approved, Brascoupé says that they’ve engaged with over 800 Indigenous-led non-profits and charities.
Brascoupé says one way the fund began operating so quickly was to bring in people who knew the charitable sector and their communities as part of their advisory council and reviewer circle. They meet monthly to review applications from their areas.
Tina Petawabano, President of the Eenou-Eeyou Community Foundation, is one such representative on the advisory council, while Joshua Iserhoff, originally of Mistissini, is the fund’s Quebec representative.
Iserhoff says he was originally involved with the Eenou-Eeyou Community Foundation before joining the IPRF. “I remember years ago there was research done that looked at philanthropic funding given to the general public, and less than 1% went to Indigenous communities,” he said. “That sparked my attention to fix it, so I joined this organization.”
That percentage has grown in the two years the foundation has operated. “Western” donors used to tell communities how to spend their money, Iserhoff says, but now “they give us free rein to spend however the funds could be spent.”
“When we looked at the pandemic, there are so many projects that are Elder oriented, continuing services no longer carried through because of the pandemic, supporting programs to get wi-fi started, tablets to help Elders stay in touch with society,” Iserhoff shared.
Another project that touched his heart was helping a community in Quebec rebuild a traditional lodge and learning centre that burned down.
Iserhoff wants to see even more funding reach northern communities, including the Cree. According to the IPRF annual report, only 6.45% of its funding in 2021 made it to the North, but the organization hopes to get the word out with a new website coming in the fall that will feature Cree, Inuit and French translation.
He sees many potential projects for those who want to better their communities, pointing to an example from Lac Simard, which erected a totem pole as a sign of resilience.
Iserhoff encourages those wanting to support their community to go online and look at the IPRF application, which he says is simple and easy to navigate, or to write to him directly at email@example.com.
Applications are due by the last Friday of every month and funding is awarded monthly, a stark difference from most funding models. Iserhoff encourages people to apply more than once if their project isn’t initially accepted, since the IPRF receives hundreds of applications every month.
As for thinking beyond the pandemic, Brascoupé says that this summer the group plans to reach out to communities and organizations to find out what kind of supports they need moving forward, and that by September or October applicants will be able to apply much more broadly to support their communities.
by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter