National Council of Welfare Report highlights need for action to give aboriginal youth a decent life

Story by Lloyd Dolha

A new report by the National Council of Welfare (NCW), released September 18th, concludes that bolder, more innovative government action is required to give aboriginal children a decent, better chance in life.

The report, First Nations, Metis and Inuit Children and Youth: Time to Act, was prepared by the federal advisory body, draws attention not only to the discrimination and poverty faced by many aboriginal children and youth, but also to the many success stories led by First Nations themselves.

It combines statistical evidence with interviews with aboriginal women and men who work with children and youth.

The report calls on governments to act now and in new ways to genuinely work with aboriginal people and support them fully in their own decisions about what is needed to help their youth.
The NCW report urges government action in a number of areas of concern that specifically includes: the adoption of a comprehensive national anti-poverty strategy with specific vision and accountability to aboriginal peoples; immediate investment in basic needs for today’s aboriginal children and youth in programs and policies that are making a difference, and; greater effort to build fair, sustainable governance frameworks in the interests of a better quality of life for all aboriginal women, men, children and youth.

“The national council is agreeing with what we’ve been saying for years,” said AFN national chief Phil Fontaine. “Immediate investment is needed for successful programs designed by First Nations, and a real commitment to building fair, sustainable First Nations governance frameworks.”

In the council’s report, a two-fold picture of aboriginal children and youth emerges. One is a portrait of aboriginal children and youth often still caught in the legacy of colonialism, racism and exclusion. Their developmental years are often fraught with high rates of poverty and its related causes and consequences in health problems, poor housing and educational difficulties to astounding numbers of aboriginal children and youth taken into government care and youth in trouble with the law or victims of violent crime.

The other side of the portrait shows progress, even in the face of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Aboriginal organizations and communities are finding solutions, developing successful programs and providing the means to restore hope for future generations.

Despite some limitations, the report highlights distinction between First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. It further addresses differences between women and men and the diversity across urban and remote rural reserve locations.

Chapter 1 reveals the a rapidly growing population of aboriginal children and youth in much greater proportions that the non-aboriginal population that bears the stamp of historical disadvantage of past forced assimilation attempts.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the economic context of aboriginal children and youth’s lives in modern society. Aboriginal incomes are improving but the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal incomes continues to widen, even under strong economic conditions.

Aboriginal people consistently earn less than non-aboriginal people. The income gap widened over the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, demonstrating how historical disadvantage has ongoing impacts on aboriginal income.

The 2001 census revealed very high poverty levels as a result of the growing income gaps. In the western provinces, a large proportion of aboriginal children aged 0-14 yr.s lived in impoverished families: 51% in Manitoba compared to 22% for non-aboriginal and 52% in Saskatchewan compared to 21 % for non-aboriginal children. In Alberta, 37% of aboriginal children lived in poverty compared to 16% of non-aboriginal children. For registered Indian children, the cross-Canada figure is 52% living in poverty.

In 2001, the unemployment rate for aboriginal people 15 years and older was 19.9% compared to non-aboriginal Canadians at 7.1%.

On-reserve, the unemployment rate situation for First Nations is far worse. In 2001, the unemployment rate for First Nations people living on-reserve was 27.8% compared to 16.5% for the non-reserve aboriginal population. However, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada observed that the unemployment rate on some reserves still reaches as high a s 70%.

In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, unemployment rates were three times as high for aboriginal people compared to non-aboriginal people. Relative rates are little better in the provinces and territories, but still range from 1.5 to 2.9 times as high.

The situation for young aboriginal women is the worse, given not only high rates of single parenthood in the aboriginal community, but also high rates of teenage parenthood.

Chapters 5 and 6 demonstrate how aboriginal children and youth are at higher risk across all indicators of wellness and their health cannot be disassociated from that of their families, communities and living conditions. Aboriginal housing on=reserve and elsewhere, whether in urban areas or the north, is substandard and inadequate.

Chapters 7 and 8 look at the consequences of forced assimilation and systemic exclusion. Incredible numbers of aboriginal children are still being taken into care by child welfare authorities. Many aboriginal children in care “graduate” to the justice system where aboriginal youth are overrepresented in conflict with the law and, ultimately prison, and young aboriginal women are too often the victims of violent crime.
Between 1995 and 2001, the number of registered Indian children entering the care of child welfare agencies rose 71% nationally.

Provincial data, where available, shows that the percentage of aboriginal children in care is increasing.

In British Columbia, aboriginal children made up 37% of children in care in 2000/01, compared to 50% in 2005/06. In 1997 in Manitoba, about 70% of children in care were aboriginal, compared to 85% in March 2006.

The “60’s scoop” is a term coined to describe an era in Canadian history between 1960 and the mid-1980’s when the highest number of adoptions of aboriginal children took place. Over 11,000 status Indian children, plus many other aboriginal children, were placed for adoption between 1960 and 1990.
Given this most recent data, many First Nations would argue that the 60’s scoop never ended, it just increased with intensity, each year, each decade.

According to AFN national chief Phil Fontaine, “The situation facing First Nations children and families today has never been worse. There are more than 27,000 First Nations children in care today. This represents three times the number of children who were in residential schools at the height of their operations.”
The failure of provincial/territorial child welfare agencies to make a meaningful difference in the health and well being of aboriginal children supports the need for aboriginal controlled, culturally-based models.

In the area of justice and aboriginal youth, in its 2005-06 annual report, the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada condemned ongoing discrimination against aboriginal people in the justice system.

Despite some positive steps, the overall situation of aboriginal offenders has not measurably improved in recent years. Aboriginals account for a disproportionate share of the prison population. They represent 18% of the federal prison population although they account for just 3% of the general Canadian population.

In 2000, 41.3 % of all federally incarcerated aboriginal offenders were 25 years of age or younger. In the four western provinces, the numbers reach astronomic proportions. For example, in Manitoba, 77% of youth in secure custody are aboriginal, in Saskatchewan aboriginal youth are 75%, in Alberta37% and 32% in British Columbia. Given that aboriginal youth form 19% of the population in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, 8% in Alberta and 7% in B.C., the percentages in secure custody are far out of balance with population numbers.

As victims, aboriginal people are three times more likely than non-aboriginal people to experience a violent victimization.. Younger aboriginal people aged 15-24 years were 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violent crime as those who were 35 years and older.

Aboriginal young women are disproportionately victimized in domestic violence, the sex trade and gang violence. Young aboriginal women are subject to gendered racism and violence targeted at aboriginal women in general, and more particularly, as sex trade workers.

Initiatives such as Sisters in Spirit, provide a promising example of collaborative efforts. In this initiative, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) is working in collaboration with aboriginal youth, other aboriginal women’s organizations and the federal government to address the high rates of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. As noted by NWAC, “this type of violence typically occurs in the public where societal indifference often leaves aboriginal women at greater risk.”

Accordingly, this five-year research, education and policy initiative is designed to increase public understanding and knowledge of the impact of racialized and sexualized violence against aboriginal women often leading to their disappearance and death.

Aboriginal youth face race and gender discrimination often compounded by inequity due to poverty, ill health, lack of education and employment opportunities and other factors.
Aboriginal people need access to culturally appropriate life skills programs and community re-integration supports. Traditional aboriginal justice initiatives may also deliver more meaningful justice to aboriginal youth and communities while providing greater potential for rehabilitation.

While alternative approaches to a criminal justice system that is clearly not working for aboriginal people are to be lauded, truly addressing aboriginal over-representation requires a holistic approach.

According to Justice Sinclair, “The overall solution, I think, is going to be a long-term approach and it has to begin with early childhood development issues. There, I think, we need to assist, particularly given the higher birth rates and the number of young aboriginal girls who are getting pregnant and having babies before the age of 20. We have to assist them in developing their parenting skills and their own personal skills and their own personal levels of achievement so that they themselves can be good role models for their children as they are growing up , as well as good contributing members of society, be that an aboriginal community or the overall community.”

“We need to provide a healthy environment for First Nations children and youth if they are going to succeed in school and in life. They need to be well fed, have clean water to drink, and access to safe housing,” said AFN national chief Fontaine. We know that when our youth do complete high school, they do just as well, in terms of health and employment, as other Canadians. It’s during the teenage years we’re losing them.”