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article imageOp-Ed: Canada's shame found in poor treatment of First Nations people

By Stephanie Dearing     Jun 26, 2009 in Politics
Canadian policies and legislation since the time of Confederation have served to collectively marginalize First Nations, Inuit and Metis people.
The consequences for First Nation people have been poverty, illness, substandard living conditions, substance abuse issues, high suicide and death rates for some portions of the population ... and a constant struggle for equal rights and treatment under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by Canada twenty years ago and Declaration of Human Rights, which Canada signed in 1948. Despite the fight by First Nations people, activists and organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights and Unicef Canada for better treatment, there has been very little progress. In 2007, an ill Aboriginal boy, Jordan, died because of arguments over jurisdiction for the boy's health care. While government parties argued over who should pay for the child's health care, the boy languished, dying for lack of care. Since his death, a private member's bill was introduced in the House of Commons that says "the level of government in first contact with the child assumes the cost of care and both levels sort out the costs and jurisdiction after the service has been delivered." Yet, as the Swine Flu outbreak in Northern Manitoba has demonstrated, it is still difficult for First Nations people to receive the medical help needed, even in a crisis. The slow response of the federal government to assist the flu-afflicted Aboriginal communities becomes an issue deserving of scrutinty, particularly because the majority of First Nations people affected by the flu are children and youth.
The Unicef supplementary report on the state of Canada's First Nations children, 'Aboriginal Children's Health: Leaving No Child Behind,' released June 24, acknowledges the advancements made to improve the lives of Aboriginals. These include reducing the infant death rates, increasing the number of children who can access education, and improving housing conditions for some families. Despite these positive changes, however, Unicef warns that First Nations children are suffering from a higher rate of poor health and childhood death.
It is a concept that is staggering to consider. Because of your birthright, you could stand a higher chance of not surviving your childhood. And if you do survive, you stand a good chance of being relegated to a life of poverty and grinding living conditions. This situation is inconceivable for the majority of Canadians. Yet it is likely daily life if you happened to have been born Aboriginal. The disparities in the standard of living, health care, and education between First Nations people and the rest of Canadian society are striking and difficult to ignore. Considering that Canada is one of the best nations in the world in which to live, the fact that Canadian policy has not fully addressed the conditions still found on many First Nations communities constitutes a continuing source of shame.
In 1996, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation released a research and development report that clearly outlined the fact that many First Nations people (52%) lived in substandard housing. The Federal governmental response to improving housing conditions is to "... provide First Nations on-reserve with the same housing opportunities as other Canadians. We are committed to working collaboratively with First Nations on safe and affordable housing on-reserve. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada does not cover the full cost of housing, the Department does provide various forms of assistance to support the development of on-reserve housing. It is up to the First Nations and their community members to secure other sources of funds to meet their housing needs." If you are not sure what that means, you are not alone.
In 1998, Canada created 'Gathering Strength,' Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan. In 2000 the government released a progress report on the status of the Aboriginal Action Plan. The main purpose of the Aboriginal Action Plan was (in conjunction with First Nations people, other government agencies and other partners) to focus on "key priorities that would result in jobs, growth, stability and an improved quality of life for Aboriginal people." The report goes on to say that key structures, such as self-governance; and infrastructure, such as improved housing and water and sewer systems had been implemented (27 communities received water and sewer systems). The report also talked about helping Aboriginals become financially independent. The creation of Nunavut in 1999 was a major accomplishment, as was the introduction of Inuktitut to the Senate Chamber and two Senate Committees.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child had submitted to Canada a "list of issues" it had identified regarding the status of First Nations children, and in 2003 received a report from Canada in response. In following up on Canada's report submission to the Committee, there were many further issues delineated by the Committee, which Canada was to report on in January 2009. The 14 pages outline many issue areas, and the following have been selected as some of the key issues regarding First Nations people:
To see implemented "...a coherent and comprehensive rights-based national plan of action is adopted, targeting all children, especially the most vulnerable groups including Aboriginal, migrant and refugee children; with a division of responsibilities, clear priorities, a timetable and a preliminary allocation of necessary resources in conformity with the Convention at the federal, provincial, territorial and local levels in cooperation with civil society. It also urges the Government to designate a systematic monitoring mechanism for the implementation of the national plan of action."
The Committee also made note of concerns about "... in particular as they relate to children, such as those relating to the Indian Act, to the extent of violence against and deaths in custody of Aboriginals and people of African and Asian descent, to existing patterns of discrimination and expressions of prejudice in the media and to the exclusion from the school system of children of migrants with no status, and remains concerned at the persistence of de facto discrimination against certain groups of children."
In regards to infant mortality rates and death rates (suicide and substance abuse) of Aboriginal youth, the Committee suggested that Canada should "... continue to give priority to studying possible causes of youth suicide and the characteristics of those who appear to be most at risk, and take steps as soon as practicable to put in place additional support, prevention and intervention programmes, e.g. in the fields of mental health, education and employment, that could reduce the occurrence of this tragic phenomenon." Canada has submitted its report to the Committee, although the report has not yet been made available to the public.
In 2008, Canada submitted a Progress Report to the Committee on World Food Security in Implementing the World Food Summit Plan of Action. In the report, the Canadian government claims that it had undertaken a number of steps to reduce poverty for First Nations people, particularly children, to increase employment and to implement self-government for First Nations. In the words of the government, "... New strategies have been adopted by both federal and provincial/territorial governments to address the needs of Aboriginal people, particularly in urban areas, to promote development of economic enterprises, to create appropriate human resource strategies and to deal with health needs, to name just a few. The most important common feature of these approaches is that they directly involve the Government of Canada working in cooperation with Aboriginal people and First Nations processes of self-government..."
All of the above seems to be just 'so many words.' Here are some recent concrete examples of the disparities and inherent problems that one Aboriginal community is dealing with.
In 2005, housing conditions on an Ontario reserve, Kasechewan, shocked the world when the media broke the story about "dirty water laced with E. coli, rampant sickness and overcrowded, poorly built houses." The community was in the news again in 2006 when an inquiry was to be held into the deaths of two men who burned to death while in jail earlier that year. It was reported that one officer suffered serious burns attempting to open the cells after a fire broke out in the facility. According to the CBC, "... New Democrat MP Charlie Angus described the jail as "more like something you see in Sarajevo than the province of Ontario." In January 2009, a Kasechewan family reported that an ill and dying elder relative had been left in a freezing air ambulance for about an hour.
Aside from the spring flooding problems that resulted in the contaminated drinking water in 2005, and aside from the issue of substandard housing, Kasechewan has also been been struggling with substance abuse and a high suicide rate.
Isn't it time for Canada to change all this?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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