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Advocates take complaints about aboriginal children to the United Nations

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on Tue, 03/06/2012 - 07:23

OTTAWA — Child rights advocates say they believe shaming Ottawa before the world will lead to concrete improvements for aboriginal children on reserves.

The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the ecumenical group KAIROS have submitted a report to the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, just as Canada's performance comes up for review.

The report argues that government funding for aboriginal health, education, housing and child welfare is not only inadequate, but is also lower than for non-aboriginal children.

"I think the more Canadians who understand how unacceptable this is, the more pressure the government will be under," said retired Liberal senator Landon Pearson, a veteran child-rights advocate who now sits on the board of the Caring Society.

"These children are getting less for health, education and child welfare, just because they're aboriginal,": she said. "And that just doesn't seem right.

"Fairness is a core Canadian value. This is not fair and these kids want to be successful."

Canada signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. The convention requires states to act in the best interests of children and subjects countries to periodic reviews.

Canada is up for review next year and the federal government has already submitted a lengthy report about its adherence to the treaty.

But the government document glosses over the terrible conditions that hurt many aboriginal children, the groups say.

They say First Nations schools receive between $2000 and $3000 less per student than provincially run schools and that funding increases have been capped at two per cent a year -- even though the aboriginal population is expanding quickly.

They point to schools closed because of mould or unsafe drinking water, and reserves where children are forced to move away from home to attend high school.

In Manitoba this summer, First Nations waited for months to get their children into temporary schooling after floods on the Lake St. Martin reserve caused local closures. But when a school in Winnipeg burnt down recently, students there only had to wait a few days, said Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs.

"The world is condemning Canada for its treatment of First Nation children," he said. "The two-tiered system of on- and off-reserve supports is inherently flawed. We see this regularly in Manitoba."

The report also points to auditor-generals' findings and departmental audits showing substandard housing on many reserves.

It cites studies showing that the federal government underfunds child welfare by about 22 per cent, compared to what other children receive.

"This type of discrimination cannot be fixed by the children or the communities themselves," said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society.

"First Nations children get inequitable government services from Ottawa because of who they are. No amount of trying harder, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, managing money better will help change your culture or your race -- something you should not be asked to change and no other Canadian is -- in order to get equitable services."

The discrepancy in child-welfare funding is the subject of an ongoing Federal Court dispute between the Caring Society and the government. Ottawa argues that federal services cannot be compared to provincial services.

A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said officials will carefully review the report to the UN committee. Michelle Yao said the government focuses its spending on training and skills development.

Yao also pointed out that the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations are in the midst of examining ways to improve the education system for aboriginal elementary and high school students.

The recommendations are expected to feed into a meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and aboriginal leaders this winter.

But several native communities oppose the joint process on education, saying it is time for action, not more studies.

The Canadian Press

Date: Monday Oct. 24, 2011 6:13 PM ET