Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She is also a professor at the school of social work at McGill University.
A report last week confirmed what we have known for decades: First Nations children, particularly those who reside on reserve, live in the deepest levels of poverty of all children in Canada.
A key solution has been on the books for decades. The federal government must end its discriminatory and inequitable funding of all public services on reserves, including education, health care, child welfare and basics such as water and sanitation.
Although these inequalities have been known to the federal government for at least 112 years, it continues to take small and insufficient steps, dealing with the problem one service at a time instead of co-developing a comprehensive plan with First Nations to address all the inequalities.
As a result, First Nations children and families pay the price.
July 12 marked the 25th birthday of the late Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation. She lived the inequalities in public services that successive federal governments have perpetuated, despite available solutions and resources. Born under the Big Dipper that is sacred to her people, Shannen knew that she and the other children in Attawapiskat needed a good education to, as she put it, “grow up to be someone important.”
The problem was that when Shannen was in Grade 1, the only school in her community closed because of contamination from a gasoline spill. The Government of Canada, which is responsible for funding education on reserves, brought up portable trailers as a “temporary” facility while a new school was built. When Shannen was in Grade 8, those trailers were falling apart and there was no sign of a new school. She and the other youth in Attawapiskat called upon thousands of non-Indigenous children across Canada to join them in a campaign for a new school.
Shannen had to move off reserve to get a high-school education and in 2010, while she attended a high school she would have never gone to had the one in her own Northern Ontario community been properly funded, she died in an automobile accident. The thousands of children she inspired launched Shannen’s Dream to honour this hero and continue her work. In 2014, four years after Shannen’s death, a new school finally opened in Attawapiskat. Still, many other First Nations are without proper schools, so the campaign continues.
Chelsea Edwards, a founder and youth spokeswoman for Shannen’s Dream and now the mother of a four-month-old son, was in the news again last week. A proud member of Attawapiskat First Nation, she spent her childhood advocating for Shannen’s Dream across Canada and at the United Nations. Last week, she pleaded with Canadians and the Government of Canada to fix the contaminated water in her community after officials advised people not to shower, wash food or drink from their own taps.
The Government of Canada is rushing bottled water up to the community, but this Band-Aid solution does not address the federal bureaucratic and political negligence that gave rise to this latest water crisis in Attawapiskat. The government has known for decades about water problems in this community and has failed to take the action needed to fix the problem.
Canada’s piecemeal approach to addressing the pressing inequalities in public services in Attawapiskat is consistent with its overall approach to all First Nations children. Governments try to distract public attention from inexcusable issues, such as not being able to shower because of contaminated water, by citing what they have done and framing it as reconciliation. Providing equitable public services for First Nations children is not reconciliation – it is the law in Canada and something every other person in Canada takes for granted. It is also absolutely essential to lifting First Nations children and families out of poverty.
How can First Nations families reasonably recover from the multigenerational effects of residential schools when the federal government delivers apartheid-type public services and refuses to implement a comprehensive plan to address all inequalities in essential services for children and families? The answer is they can’t.
Until the public demands an end to this willful government discrimination, we will continue to see report after report on child tragedy and child poverty.
The hallmark experience of a First Nations childhood should not have to be fighting with the government for clean water and a good education. Shannen and Chelsea pleaded for our help, and this October we can all vote in the federal election for a comprehensive and public plan to end the inequalities in First Nations public services – so let’s do it.
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