Indigenous youth offer testimonies to U.N. committee

Helen Knott of Prophet River First Nations in B.C. and Madelynn Slade of the Michel Cree in Alberta address a press conference in Toronto. Photo: Courtesy of KAIROS
Helen Knott of Prophet River First Nations in B.C. and Madelynn Slade of the Michel Cree in Alberta address a press conference in Toronto. Photo: Courtesy of KAIROS
By on February 6, 2012

This week, six Indigenous youth ambassadors from across Canada travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The committee is reviewing how well Canada is meeting its obligations as a signatory country to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The six young people plan to tell the committee that Canada isn’t living up to its commitments vis-a-vis indigenous children and offer stories of the consequences of that failure.

The goal is to pressure Canada to provide aboriginal children with the same level of services in education, health care, child welfare, culture and language as it does for non-aboriginal children.

The young ambassadors include:

John-Paul Chalykoff, 24, a member of Michipicoten First Nation, currently working on an education degree at Lakehead University in Ontario.
Chelsea Edwards, 16, from the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario, is the youth spokesperson for the Shannen’s Dream campaign (www.shannensdream.ca) for safe, comfortable schools and equitable education on reserves.

Helen Knott, 24, is a Dane Tsaa and Cree woman from Prophet River First Nations in British Columbia now living in Fort St. John, B.C. She recently graduated from a Social Service Worker and Diploma program and an Indigenous Women in Community Leadership program.

Madelynn Slade, 22, is a non-status Michel Cree from Alberta currently studying Child and Youth Care in British Columbia

Collin Starblanket, 15, a member of the Star Blanket Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, has been singing and dancing in traditional ceremonies since an early age.

Kendall White has lived on Temagami First Nation in Ontario for 12 years. She recently traveled to Greenland, Iceland, Labrador and Nunavut along with 70 other youth from around the world, to study the effects of global warming.

The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society and Kairos, a Canadian ecumenical social justice organization, of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member, released a joint submission “Honouring the Children” to the UNCRC on this issue in October. The executive summary of that document includes the following about Canada’s care of aboriginal children:

The dream of safe and comfy schools and equitable education for indigenous children remains largely unrealized in Canada. Many schools are condemned, others lack running water and heat, or are in want of basic supplies. Less than half of First Nations schools are in good condition, and government effort to build new schools is declining. Also, many reserves do not have high schools, which results in a twofold problem-children either end their formal education at Grade 8 or are compelled to move to cities far from home, which severs ties to their families, communities, and cultures.

First Nations child welfare is seriously underfunded. Some studies indicate that the federal government underfunds child welfare by 22% compared to what other children receive. The absence of basic parity suggests to some that Canada is discriminating based on race and national ethnic origin by failing to provide First Nations children with equitable and culturally based services. Formal challenges to these inequities are often slow and marked by procedural difficulties and lack of governmental attention to compiling adequate information. This is compounded by the tragedies of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Within a single generation, nearly 600 Aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered. Of documented cases, 100 were girls under the age of 18 and more than 440 children are known to have suffered the loss of their mother. Much more information on the way that the tragic loss of these women may be causing children to enter state care is needed

Compromised health care and land rights also adversely affect indigenous children’s lives in Canada. They lose out compared to other children with respect to even the most basic health services and continue to be denied care because they are caught in the middle of jurisdictional disputes between provincial and federal governments. Even safe drinking water and decent housing are in shocking demand on reserves. More than 1 out of 10 First Nations communities have to boil their water and there is a skyrocketing need for on reserve housing in the last decade. While Canada does acknowledge the link between land rights and the wellbeing of indigenous children, its policies and practices continue to be an obstacle towards the conclusion of land rights and self-government agreements. Notwithstanding clear recommendations from a number of UN treaty bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, Canada has failed to establish meaningful alternatives to its “extinguishment” policy (i.e., the requirement that Indigenous people relinquish their rights or title to significant shares of their traditional lands as a condition of settlement).

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