Some kids in Canada grow up thinking suicide is normal, that drug and alcohol addiction is inevitable, and that living in rundown shacks with no doors is commonplace. Some kids in Canada don’t know what it’s like to have ready access to safe drinking water and attend schools that aren’t ridden with mould or infested with mice. For some First Nations children, Canada is a third world nation.
We need a vision for a better Canada than this—a Canada where all kids have access to adequate housing, clean water, a good education, and the opportunity to be the best they can be, regardless of whether they are born on a reserve or not.
Some kids have that vision. Take Shannen’s Dream – a movement for equitable education for First Nations kids. The initiative started with Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation who worked hard to convince the government to provide “safe and comfy schools and culturally based education for First Nations children and youth.” She tragically passed away at the age of 15 in 2010, but other kids have since picked up her dream and are courageously speaking up for their own rights.
Other advocates also envision a better future for Canadian children. In April, aboriginal children’s advocate, Cindy Blackstock, won an important court victory in a case challenging the federal underfunding of child welfare services on First Nations reserves. The Federal Court directed the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to review the evidence that First Nations children are being discriminated against. This decision gives renewed hope that the federal government will be held accountable under the Canadian Human Rights Act for their responsibility to provide and protect equitable access to government services for First Nations people.
Efforts like these are encouraging. But ensuring life basics and equitable opportunity for children in Canada shouldn’t be this difficult. So why is it?
The federal government, who is constitutionally responsible for funding to the reserves, isn’t living up to its responsibility to assist First Nations communities. Instead of paying attention to official audits and accurate estimates of what is required to properly address issues like inadequate housing, food insecurity, lack of health services, and much more on-reserve, the government does little more than offer Band-Aid solutions to problems.
Part of the reason for this funding gap is an outdated 2% cap on annual federal funding increases to First Nations that has been in place since 1996, in spite of increasing inflation rates and a growing aboriginal population. Consequently, problems remain endemic and First Nations children get the short end of the stick in Canadian society.
Granted, the 2012 federal budget promised to invest some money in aboriginal communities – most notably $275 million for primary and secondary aboriginal education over three years, and $331 million to build and renovate on-reserve water infrastructure. But these amounts, while certainly helpful, are not even close to what is needed.
And how loudly can we applaud the government for trying to plug one hole in a leaky barrel when they are simultaneously drilling new ones? In the month after the budget was announced, a host of First Nations organizations like First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Aboriginal Health Organization and the National Centre for First Nations Governance found out they were losing critical funding from the government.
The media and politicos have remained quiet on these cuts—because they can. This reflects another reason achieving equity for First Nations children is a challenge: when it comes to First Nations struggles in Canada, it’s not news, it’s normal. “The poor First Nations will always be with you” seems to be the prevailing sentiment.
So it’s not just a matter of persuading the government to do their job, it’s a fight for a new perspective in Canadian society. Canadians need to realize that First Nations issues are Canadian issues and that the suffering of First Nations children impacts Canadian society at large. We need to join the First Nations kids and their advocates in dreaming for a Canada that offers equal opportunity for all kids.
It’s a dream we hope will be sparked in and through youth who take part in the CPJ video contest launched in April. The contest requires youth to consider the inequities faced by Canada’s First Nations children, to ask why they exist, and to seek solutions to the problems. The contest also provides a way for youth to stand in solidarity with their fellow aboriginal Canadians, supporting other courageous efforts to stand up for the rights of First Nation’s children like Shannen’s Dream.
Contest participants or not, we hope the video contest’s launch provokes some critical thought and action among readers on one of Canada’s bleakest disparities. It’s time for Canadians to look at life in Canada through the lens of a First Nations child.
For more information about the video contest, visit the CPJ contest page.