Building a bridge to northern children
TheStar.com – Opinion – Building a bridge to northern children
August 31, 2009. Carol Goar, Sandy lake first nation
It began with a box of sweaters. Micheal Hardy, executive director of the North-South Partnership for Children, remembers the moment clearly.
He was working in his office in Sioux Lookout. At the time, he headed Tikinagan Child and Family Services, the aboriginal equivalent of the Children’s Aid Society. The phone rang. It was Maurice Brubacher, director of family and children’s services for Guelph. “Do you want a box of sweaters?”
Hardy was puzzled. The children in the 30 remote communities served by his agency were properly clothed. They didn’t need second-hand sweaters.
But because the offer was made in a spirit of generosity, he said yes.
That was nine years ago. Out of Brubacher’s kind, but clumsy, gesture grew a remarkable partnership between the First Nations in the northern third of the province and a small – but growing – circle of individuals and organizations in the south dedicated to working with them to create a better future for their children.
“We really didn’t think anybody cared about us,” Hardy said. “This has created a new sense of hope and possibility for our communities. A lot is going to change in the next 10 years.”
A lot has changed already. The driving force was Judy Finlay, Ontario’s former Child Advocate. (She is now a professor at Ryerson University and co-chair of the North-South partnership.)
When Brubacher told her about the link he’d forged with his northern counterpart, she invited Hardy to come to Toronto and tell others about the conditions in which children in the far north lived. “She made a year-long commitment to advocate for us,” Hardy recalled.
But when the year ended, Finlay was more passionate than ever about tackling the poverty, isolation and lack of opportunity that were holding First Nations children back. “My job was to ensure that all children had access to rights,” she said. “Canada sends money and resources to Third World countries, but we have a Fourth World country in our backyard.”
Finlay knew advocacy wouldn’t be enough. She also realized she had to earn the trust of First Nations before speaking for them. Through Hardy, a former chief of the Rocky Bay First Nation, she met other chiefs and elders.
She flew to their communities and listened while they outlined the needs of their people and showed how failed government policies and lack of resources were constraining them. She made it clear that she was there to help, respecting their beliefs and practices.
Over time, Finlay became a welcome visitor. Working with Hardy in the north and Brubacher in the south, she widened the circle, reaching out to people and organizations with skills to share (building contractors, water experts), goods to donate (everything from disposable diapers to used ambulances) and funds to build the partnership.
Initially, the voluntary coalition concentrated on meeting the physical needs of First Nations, sending shipments of food, clothing, blankets, school supplies and sports equipment north. But as the partnership deepened, the focus broadened. It is now helping First Nations build on their strengths and find ways to achieve their priorities, while educating southern Ontarians about the realities of the north.
In 2006, the partnership was formalized, following a resolution of the 30 chiefs at their annual assembly. Its two co-chairs are Finlay and Chief Donny Morris of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation. Hardy is its executive director.
From 12 original organizations, it has grown to 102. It has arranged site visits for numerous southern partners. Last year, it raised more than $300,000.
But, according to everybody involved, it remains a “developing partnership.” It will proceed at the pace needed to ensure First Nations are fully involved in shaping its mission and operations.
One people-to-people bridge-building effort won’t solve the problems of Ontario’s far north. But it’s a start.
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