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Canada must address the crisis faced by aboriginal children

Much is needed to fix long-standing disparities between them and other children

Aboriginal children in Canada are in crisis, facing gross inequities and lacking opportunities open to other Canadian children, even though those other children also don't have the full rights promised to them under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That's the message that the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates is sending to the UN committee on children's rights in a special report called Canada Must Do Better, which was released Tuesday for consideration in the 2012 review of Canada's compliance with the convention.

The child advocates, who are appointed by nine provincial legislatures (Prince Edward Island doesn't have one) and Yukon, make the point that conditions for aboriginal children are of vital importance since their numbers are increasing at the fastest rate of any identifiable group in Canada.

The statistics in their report are not new, but bear repeating because they reflect just how badly Canada is doing.

The advocates' report also quotes from UNICEF Canada's report to the UN committee. In it, UNICEF notes, "Aboriginal children experience higher infant mortality rates, lower child immunization rates, poorer nutritional status and endemic rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic disease."

Among the myriad problems identified by the child and youth advocates is that there is not enough data and not enough research done on aboriginal children.

In fact, health data are so spotty that the advocates say, "In our opinion, Canada's report [on aboriginal health] does not portray the actual poor state of aboriginal children's health."

There is no good data for sexual exploitation. The report notes that estimates range from 14 per cent to 60 per cent of all aboriginal children.

Various studies including Statistics Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth have data specific to children, but don't differentiate between aboriginal and non-aboriginal children and don't distinguish first nations, Metis and Inuit and often exclude on-reserve first nations children.

Multi-million-dollar programs aimed specifically at aboriginal children are not monitored for outcomes. So, no one is certain whether they are accomplishing their goals. And without that, it's impossible to establish best practices.

Among the advocates' 40 recommendations are that Canada establish an Aboriginal Children's Institute for Research as well as a monitored and evaluated national aboriginal children's plan aimed at reducing poverty.

They also recommend: improved health infrastructure in remote communities; a national aboriginal educational framework; a national commission to examine child trafficking, sexual exploitation and homelessness; targeted programs promoting Internet safety.

Legislation that perpetuates discriminatory practices including the denial of aboriginal rights to children whose mothers married non-aboriginal men must be amended.

And more must be done to ensure that provinces, territories and the federal government live up to their commitment that the government of first contact will provide for the health and welfare needs of any aboriginal child. In addition to their own recommendations, both the council of advocates and UNICEF Canada support another report done by the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.

Key among its recommendations are: developing a rights-based lens for reviewing and amending provincial and federal legislation; establishing systematic monitoring of legislation and programs; abandoning proposed changes to the juvenile justice act.

The justice act changes will have their greatest effect on aboriginal youth. Shockingly, as the advocates note, an aboriginal youth is more likely to be sentenced to youth custody than to graduate from high school.

More than 27,000 aboriginal youth were sentenced to custody in 2007 and 2008. Another 47,000 were put on probation. Those numbers are almost certain to rise under the proposed legislation because of the emphasis on incarceration and mandatory sentences which don't account for special circumstances such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

Canada has much to do for all children to meet the UN Convention's minimum standards. But of greater urgency is paying specific attention to aboriginal children, who are the most vulnerable of all.

Daphne Bramham
7 Novermber 2011




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