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'New path' for B.C. native youth needed: report

Two young natives walk along a road in the remote community of Ahousaht July 8, 2005 which is dealing with an epidemic of suicides and is calling for professional help.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

If there is a single indicator of how a child will develop in British Columbia - that will define whether that child ends up belonging to the haves or the have-nots - it is the possession of an Indian status card.

Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, reached that verdict as he grew up in the remote and impoverished community of Ahousaht off Vancouver Island.

And it's confirmed in a new report to be released Monday by provincial health officer Perry Kendall and the B.C. watchdog for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

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Growing up in B.C. is a snapshot of the state of kids in the province, gathering data on youth suicides, infant mortality and drug use, as well as graduation rates, physical activity and youth volunteerism.

The report contains some positive news. Youth suicides and teen pregnancies overall are in decline in B.C. But for aboriginal children, prospects are severely dimmed.

That disadvantage is measured in greater health risks, more suicide attempts, poorer performance at school. The children of status Indian mothers are twice as likely to be exposed to alcohol or drugs when they are still in the womb.

"It's an important report that smashes this false sense that everything is okay," Mr. Atleo said in an interview. "It's really life and death."

Last week, a one-year-old boy died suddenly in Ahousaht. The death is under investigation but it is the latest in a string of tragedies in the village that underscore the extreme vulnerability of indigenous young people.

Mr. Atleo is anguished over the toddler's death but frustrated, too, by the fact that there has been so little progress in changing conditions that could have prevented it.

"There is a disconnect between first nations and the rest of British Columbia. What will it take to close this gap?"

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The report by Dr. Kendall and Ms. Turpel-Lafond brought together academics and youth to help assess the data that is available. The result is "a call to action" to try to erase the inequities they measured.

"Adults, be they parents, policy makers, teachers or politicians, have a responsibility to understand what is happening for children throughout B.C., and to take action to improve circumstances and tackle difficult behaviours and poor outcomes," it says.

Besides natives, the gaps also apply to two other groups: children in government care and children in poverty. More than 80,000 children and youth live in poverty in B.C., and over the course of a year, 11,000 children and youth will be brought into government care.

"What is most disturbing is that many children are caught in the vortex of all three patterns of vulnerability," the report says. "In addition, these more vulnerable young people often live in remote communities with very few resources."

It will take changes in government policies and in the way resources are allocated to improve living conditions for B.C.'s most vulnerable children, the report concludes. "A new path for these children and youth must be built and sustained."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond has been calling on the B.C. government to assemble this kind of data since she took office as the Representative for Children and Youth three years ago.

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It's important to have a baseline so that policy makers can see what needs to change, she said.

They found, for example, that children and youth in government care are more likely to go to bed hungry and to engage in risky behaviour. And aboriginal children in care - who are six times more likely to be admitted to care than non-aboriginals - show the lowest scores of any group on education achievement tests.

In general, children in B.C. are doing well. Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she hopes the report will launch a debate about how to give more children the same opportunities to thrive.

"I'm pleased we can now answer the question about how we are doing. Now we should start a different conversation."

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