G20 Girls: Sandy Lake a world away from G8 or G20 summits
TheStar.com – News/TorontoG20Summit – A stronger banking system, the European debt crisis and maternal health will all be tackled by the G20 in Toronto. But devoting resources to one group — girls — could lead to gains in all three areas. So suggests the World Bank, among others, observing that countries that don’t invest in girls have slower growth and reduced income. It’s not just the developing world where girls get shortchanged: This week, we tell the stories of girls from G20 countries struggling with sex, sexism and cruelty.
Published On Fri Jun 18 2010. By Tanya Talaga, Queen’s Park Bureau
SANDY LAKE, ONT.—Lindsay Meekis could not be further removed from the G8 or G20 summits or what they stand for.
She is standing on top of a muddy hill at Ghost Point in Sandy Lake First Nations, 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay and deep in the boreal forest.
When asked if she feels connected to the $1.1-billion global meetings being hosted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Huntsville and Toronto, she flatly answers, “No.”
She has never heard of either summit.
“Living up north, where we are, nobody really understands how we live,” says Meekis. While Canada has consistently ranked as one of the 10 best countries in the world to live, on reserves that number sinks to 63. “They don’t know. They haven’t been here.”
Sandy Lake is a remote, fly-in settlement near the Manitoba border. Meekis, 25, has lived in this Oji-Cree community of 2,700 all of her life.
Meekis spoke to the Star from beneath the mud-stained white tent put up at Ghost Point during the 100th anniversary commemoration of the signing of Treaty 5 — a 100-year-old negotiated agreement that ceded nearly 100,000 square kilometres of land to the British Crown.
She is married, a mother and part of the youth council.
As an aboriginal woman living in Canada, statistically speaking Meekis faces an uphill climb in life.
Aboriginal girls face more gender discrimination than their non-aboriginal counterparts. With a lack of proper health care on many reserves, young women have less access to birth control, medical help during pregnancy and pediatric attention for their babies.
Unlike many non-aboriginals, aboriginal women tend not delay child-bearing until their 30s.
While teen pregnancy rates have steadily declined throughout Canada, no such drop has been seen with aboriginal teens.
Meekis knows many teens who have their kids when they are 16 or 17. She herself has a son who is 6. She contemplates having more children with her partner, but she is unsure. There is much to consider.
The infant mortality rate is 1.5 times higher for native babies than for non-native infants. And on the flip side, women often must travel off reserve to access abortion.
I tell Meekis Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to use his power as host of the summits to bolster the health of women and children in the underdeveloped world.
Meekis considers this point for a moment before offering that if Harper wants to help women and children, he should consider starting in his own country. If she could say one thing to the prime minister, it would be this: “You should give more funding to the North, for everything. That is what we need. We need housing, healthcare and education.”
She points out when young women have children, they often can’t get proper housing. They bunk with others or family, as the wait for lodging can be years.
“For myself, I don’t have very good housing here,” says Meekis. “That is the same with all the other youth in Sandy Lake.”
The housing that is available on reserves can often be substandard and in desperate need of repair. Tour around Sandy Lake and you’ll see some houses missing siding or outer walls, and plastic or cardboard used to replace windows.
According to the Assembly of First Nations, one in four aboriginal adults lives in an overcrowded dwelling, and 5,486 of 88,485 houses on reserves do not have sewage.
However, aboriginal women like Meekis are increasingly taking a leadership role in their communities to get their voices heard and bring about positive change.
Meekis works with the Sandy Lake crisis program. “If there is a house fire I would go help out,” she says. “If there was a suicide, then we’d get some help.”
Boredom, poverty and despair can be overwhelming for youth in the North. Nearly 70 per cent of on-reserve Indians will not finish high school. In Sandy Lake, of 600 young people age 18 to 29 living here, only 20 have jobs.
The pain of suicide has left its mark on Sandy Lake, as it has on many First Nations communities. A few weeks ago, a young woman took her life by hanging. The suicide rate of aboriginal teens is nearly six times that of non-aboriginals.
“The youth don’t have any activities to do,” says Meekis. The youth council is trying to change that, but it is difficult without resources or money. “We barely have any equipment to use so we can’t play sports. And they can’t afford it.”
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