Hot! UN holds private meeting with native youth

TheStar.com – news/Canada
Published On Thu Feb 02 2012.   Tanya Talaga, Queen’s Park Bureau

Chelsea Edwards used to watch mice scamper across the floor while she attended classes in a mouldy Attawapiskat portable.

Now the 16-year-old is one of five First Nations youths travelling to Geneva for a private meeting with the United Nations to tell stories about what it is like to attend a reserve school in Canada. They meet Monday with the UN committee on the rights of the child.

Aboriginal leaders say the state of First Nations education in this country is in crisis: Only 40 per cent of youths living on reserves finish high school. On average, native students receive about $3,000 less in education funding than non-natives.

And many First Nations adolescents must leave their families to attend school off-reserve because their remote communities don’t have schools. In Thunder Bay, seven kids have died in the last 10 years while living on their own seeking an education.

Later this month, a national panel studying aboriginal education is expected to report to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Reports matter little to Edwards. “I’ve seen all the inequalities, I’ve lived them,” she said Thursday at a press conference in the office of the Ontario Provincial Child and Youth Advocate. “It is time for our voices to be heard.”

When Edwards was younger, she thought all kids went to school in makeshift portables “with mice running around.”

“I didn’t know what better conditions were like,” she said. “I hadn’t been out of the community or saw another school.”

Edwards and the others are part of Shannen’s Dream campaign. Attawapiskat teen Shannen Koostachin was tired of going to school in rundown portables built next to a site contaminated by a 50,000-litre diesel spill. She started a letter-writing campaign to push for “safe and comfy” schools for children living on reserves. Her dream started a movement across Canada. Koostachin died in a car accident in 2010.

The Geneva meeting is small and private — the six youths and the 18-member UN committee. Travelling with them are Ontario Child Advocate Irwin Elman and University of Alberta professor Cindy Blackstock, who is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

“It is heartbreaking it has to come to this,” said Elman. “But often times, young people can lead us. Young people standing up speaking about their real lived experiences and their real realities makes all the adults who are responsible lift their heads up and say, ‘We can do better.’”

In 2009, Blackstock received the Atkinson Charitable Foundation’s Economic Justice fellowship, which provides $100,000 per year to community leaders to support their work.

Late last year, Blackstock discovered she was being spied on by the federal government for her advocacy work. Through an access to information request she found out federal officials attended 75 to 100 meetings she spoke at since 2007 and that her Facebook page was being monitored. In 2007, she filed a human rights complaint accusing the government of willfully underfunding First Nations children services.

It is discriminatory not to give First Nations kids the same chances as other Canadian children, said Blackstock.

“Success for me will be Canada’s inequality by race, in telling children that they get less for who they are, is known to everyone in the world,” Blackstock said.

Last month, Ottawa announced a call to tenders to build a new elementary school in Attawapiskat, a Cree First Nation on the shores of James Bay that has made headlines over its poverty and third world-like housing crisis. The Conservative government approved the building of the school in 2009.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Edwards. “But that won’t stop me. That isn’t the end for me. Not until all First Nations schools are built.”

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