Our Prime Minister has said the right words when it comes to the historical wrongs of the residential school system. But will action and policy follow to improve the current misery so many First Nations still endure in their daily lives?
Editor’s Note: The following is the 12th installment in our series of columns designed to improve awareness of Aboriginal issues. These articles stem from an APEGGA goal to increase Aboriginal representation in the engineering, geological and geophysical professions. Check The PEGG Online for earlier columns in the series.
BY Robert Laboucane
President, Ripple Effects Ltd.
Profound disparities persist in every measurable societal issue between Aboriginal people and mainstream Canadians. Before we judge Aboriginals too harshly, we need to comprehend why this is so and what must be done to truly address these issues.
On June 11 last year, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons for the historical wrongs done to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples by the implementation of Canada’s widely loathed residential school policies. “A respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us,” Mr. Harper said.
Since this pivotal day, Canadians having been watching carefully and with real concern to determine whether the apology was genuine and sincere on behalf of all Canadians.
An appropriate, genuine apology can inspire civility, humanity and forgiveness, while a fake one is more likely to provoke cynicism and lawsuits. A real apology acknowledges the harm done. Our government’s apology acknowledges responsibility, includes a believable statement of regret, and also a commitment to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Canadians are watching to see whether our government will stand by its promise.
With this in mind, let’s consider the following circumstances to help determine if another apology is required — after all, when apologies are offered it is expected that positive action will follow to set the wrongs to right. The necessity for the government to act is very real and Canadians are ready.
In the Spotlight
The World Economic Forum, United Nations and the Conference Board of Canada are all highly critical of Canada’s record on human rights, assault rates, youth suicide rates and the gender income gap (which is currently at 25 per cent), and for having no pay equity law, no national childcare plan and no comprehensive social housing strategy.
Canada ranked among the top five countries in the world on the UN Human Development Index last year, yet Canada’s Aboriginal population lagged in 76th place.
This is not the Canada that Canadians want.
What Canadians want, I believe, is real reconciliation with our fellow Aboriginal citizens. The world continues to watch but the results tell a story of a country moving to the back of the class because of its under-performance in almost all subjects noted above.
The Fourth World is a term used to describe the conditions that Aboriginal people in Canada often live in because they are often worse off than those associated with the developing world. This is a shameful Canadian truth.
The poverty of women in Canada is a central concern to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which found that welfare rates are too low to provide women and their children with adequate housing, food, health services and affordable child care. Women and girls in Canada have insufficient access to civil legal aid and education, and inadequate shelters from violence.
This committee has expressed concern that more than 500 cases involving Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past two decades have neither been fully investigated nor attracted priority attention. The perpetrators remain free.
First Nations women are five times more likely than all other women to die as a result of violence. They have no property rights on reserves today, thanks to the outdated Indian Act, which governs almost all aspects of First Nations existence.
“The high levels of racialized, sexualized violence against Aboriginal women in Canada are a national and international shame and disgrace,” notes Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Woman’s Association of Canada.
Amnesty International issued a report called Stolen Sisters, A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Aboriginal Women in Canada. One of the central themes is the role of racism and discrimination in fueling acts of extreme brutality targeted against Aboriginal women.
“The failure of the Canadian government and society to respond adequately is appalling,” says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International. “Continued inaction is not an option. The Canadian record of upholding the rights of Aboriginal peoples is a real disgrace and a source of national shame. These are not political, economic or natural resource matters. These are issues of human rights.”
Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”
Poor Services, Poor Homes
For Aboriginal people in Canada, significant levels of homelessness are evident, and 50 per cent of all the homeless have inadequately addressed mental health issues.
The average Canadian gets services from the federal, provincial and municipal governments at an amount that is 2.5 times greater than that received by First Nations citizens.
The federal government has also removed Canadian’s most valuable tool in responding to rights infringements — the Court Challenges Program. For the majority of minors in the court system, cases are defended on legal aid, which is also chronically underfunded.
A one-day snapshot of the national justice system recently revealed that structural barriers faced by Aboriginal children and youth create a cycle of poverty, removal from their families into care and dropping out of school, followed by a high risk of arrest and incarceration.
The incarceration rate among Aboriginal peoples in Canada is a shocking six times higher than the national average.
One in 30 First Nations people live in homes with no hot running water.
The Tyendinga community, a mere 215 kilometres northeast of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, has not had drinkable water in its school or homes for at least 10 years.
“Sixty of our local First Nation children are in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development because of mould-infested housing,” notes Chief Paddy Walkus of Port Hardy, B.C.
Provincial Liberal cabinet minister Tom Christensen says “the number is actually only 47” and denies children have been seized because of the housing issue.
Another politician, NDP MLA Claire Trevena, had a different story for the B.C. Legislature. The smell of mould stung our media visitor’s eyes and the mould coated the carpet, walls and window ledges of rooms that once housed an infant now in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development. Twelve, 15 or 20 people living in a two or three-bedroom house, black mould causing kids to get sick and houses condemned.”
The people there aren’t alone.
Statistics reveal that 50 per cent of First Nations homes are contaminated by mould. Six per cent of First Nations homes are without sewage services. Thirty-five per cent of First Nations people believe their water is unsafe to drink.
Right now, First Nations need 87,000 new housing units and 44,000 more of their homes require repairs.
First Nations people on reserves do not and cannot own their homes and currently spent
more than 30 per cent of their meagre incomes on rent.
The percentage of First Nations children in state care is six times that of children from the general population. This speaks not to the lack of parental love but to the issue of poverty. The Assembly of First Nations has now filed a lawsuit under the Canadian Human Rights Act over actions of the federal government regarding this tragedy.
Aboriginal children are drastically over-represented in the child welfare system with more of them in the care of child welfare authorities than at any other time in our history, including when residential schools populations were at their highest levels.
Child welfare agencies are set up to protect the interests of children at risk of neglect or abuse. The continued high rates of Aboriginal children in care outside their homes indicate a crisis in Aboriginal family life. Do Canadians still wonder why there is such despair and turmoil in Aboriginal families and their communities?
The federal government has refused to address discrimination against First Nation children in the child welfare system and education. First Nations Child and Family Services agencies receive 22 per cent less funding per child than provincial agencies. There is a direct link to the Aboriginal youth education crisis as well.
“This shortfall in funding means the federal government is not pro-viding adequate funding requirements to meet the basic needs of First Nations children in state care,” Sheila Fraser, Auditor General of Canada, said in a wide-ranging and damning report in 2003.
Canada has not established minimum standards for social assistance. Now, with the economic downturn, we will most certainly hear our federal government say that the political will is there, but the cupboard is bare.
The statistics reveal, however, that the cupboard has been bare for centuries.