Harsh reality of northern reserves

TheStar.com – comment – Harsh reality of northern reserves
January 29, 2008
Judy Finlay

Following last fall’s Ontario provincial election, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the creation of a Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. I felt excited and filled with hope as this signalled a willingness by the province to enhance its understanding of First Nations issues in Ontario.

As the province’s former Child Advocate, I travelled regularly to remote northern reserves and witnessed the extreme deprivation and abhorrent living conditions in these communities. Aboriginal children are the most vulnerable segment of Ontario’s population. An imposed history of colonialism, residential schools, inequitable distribution of resources and geographic isolation have contributed to a depth of community impoverishment not seen elsewhere in the province.

A lack of safe drinking water, antiquated sewage systems, unemployment rates of more than 60 per cent, the extraordinarily high cost of food/living, overcrowding and poor housing conditions and limited social programming have led to poor health and mental health outcomes.

Chief Donny Morris from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug is perplexed as to why resources and humanitarian aid flow so easily to the developing world when we have such disgraceful conditions in our own backyard.

On a trip to Pikangikum First Nation in December, three colleagues and I were humbled by the candour of community members. These included elders, the chief, former chiefs, band council members, nurses, the school principal, teachers, youth, community/mental health workers, child welfare workers and many other community members.

Everyone had the opportunity to speak. When it came time for the elected education authority to speak, he was motionless and tearful. He spoke about having returned from an out-of-town student tournament to find that the school had burned to the ground. Students were in temporary facilities while plans for a new school were being considered.

Most troubling were the results of a youth survey titled How do you feel about yourself? Seventy-five per cent indicated that they felt sad most of the time. Seventy-three per cent “felt hurt inside and could not make that hurt go away.” Sixty-three per cent thought about suicide and 56 per cent had tried to commit suicide or hurt themselves.

Another very significant and disturbing finding was that close to one-half of the youth (48 per cent) felt “like nothing will change or get better for them in the future.”

A deep sense of hopelessness hung in the room as we all wept.

At that moment, the four of us from the south wondered about the response of parents, community leaders and governments if more than half of the youth in our own communities – London, Ottawa, High Park and Etobicoke – had expressed such despair and hopelessness. What resources and supports would be rallied to address this community crisis in southern Ontario?

Reflective of the resilience and courage of First Nations people, the chief declared that he and his people would engage in a community-wide dialogue to discuss their hopes, fears and dreams and would develop meaningful strategies to address the issues that arose from this process.

He asked us to partner with his community in this undertaking. As southern partners, we have been asked to match potential resources from the south to the needs of communities in the north.

We have reached the tipping point and there is no longer room for finger-pointing or blame. We each understand our complicity and use our own sense of responsibility to energize our actions. The deplorable circumstances of First Nations communities are complex and complicated, so much so that they can immobilize those who want to support change. As a north/south partnership, we have embraced small, incremental successes that are gaining momentum, and now a movement is afoot.

Governments and institutions need to remove administrative barriers to meaningful change. Interjurisdictional wrangling and bureaucratic intransigence are strategic impediments, as are pseudo-innovations or the pretense of collaboration. All these have been described by northern partners as characteristic of governments’ relationship with aboriginal peoples.

The Ontario government is being challenged to replace its typical administrative practices with thoughtful, decolonialized approaches that are devoid of political ambition or patronizing strategy.

Each of us must play a role in nurturing the hopefulness of our youth … all of our youth.

Judy Finlay, Ontario’s former Child Advocate, is a professor in the School of Child and Youth Care at Ryerson University.

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