If we don’t stand in the way, we can help native youth

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Friday, Jun. 24, 2011.    David Langtry

In convocation ceremonies this month, beaming young faces reflect Canada’s rich demographic fabric. With one exception: aboriginal youth.

Aboriginal kids on reserves are six times less likely to graduate from high school than the rest of our population. There’s a better chance of ending up in jail.

I believe the Canadian Human Rights Act can and should be pivotal in changing this.

The act was created to end racial and other discrimination once commonplace in our society. Excluding people living under the Indian Act from this law since 1977 was an injustice. That’s now changed. As of this month, people governed by the Indian Act are entitled to the same human-rights protections as everyone else.

Chronic disparities in funding for health, education and social services for more than 700,000 first nations people are the product of entrenched discriminatory policies. But the discriminatory thrust of such policies can be challenged now, under the Human Rights Act.

Disparities in essential services to first nations people are well documented. In her final report as Auditor-General, Sheila Fraser again noted her profound disappointment that, “despite federal action in response to our recommendations over the years, a disproportionate number of first nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted. In a country as rich as Canada, this disparity is unacceptable.”

The Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan, recently announced by the federal government and native leaders, promises new thinking. Since human-rights law is something new in the equation, it could help break with the past. Now we will see whether our human-rights law has the same power to bring positive change to natives as it has to the rest of society.

As of June 18, people can file complaints against first nations governments as well as the federal government if they believe they have been discriminated against in relation to services that affect their daily lives.

This should translate into an onus on first nations governments to ensure better accommodation of people with disabilities, for example, or to provide recourse for those denied the right to vote in band council elections on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or family status.

Similarly, it puts an onus on the federal government to ensure that funding for essential services such as health, education and child welfare is equal to the levels of funding available off reserve. On this issue hinges the question of whether the Human Rights Act can be a catalyst for real change.

It’s all coming to a head in a case before the courts. The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canadaand the Assembly of First Nations maintain that disparities in funding for child welfare services, which the federal government is required to provide on reserves, constitute discriminatory treatment. Simply put, the federal government puts up less money than the provinces and territories; on reserves, this translates into higher rates of foster care and poorer prospects of surviving a troubled childhood.

Ottawa disagrees. The Attorney-General of Canada says the Human Rights Act does not apply to federal government funding for services. The Canadian Human Rights Commission opposes such a limitation on our jurisdiction, and we are saying so in court.

If the Attorney-General succeeds, the federal government would get sweeping immunity from human-rights law. Complaints about access to clean water, health and education would be turned away before they are even heard.

This is critical for aboriginal youth – close to half a million strong, the fastest growing segment of Canada’s population. Even when a young aboriginal person can get into university, there’s often no money for it. Not only is this unfair and discriminatory, it’s a collective failure that may ultimately hurt Canada’s competitive advantage in tomorrow’s global economy.

No one will forgive our failure. The Canadian Human Rights Act can make a difference for aboriginal youth, if we don’t stand in the way.

David Langtry is acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

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