Six indigenous youth from across Canada travelled to Geneva, Switzerland this month telling the United Nations that Canada needs to end inequalities experienced by aboriginal children. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will review Canada’s compliance with the convention later this year—these youth hope to influence the process and outcome of the evaluation.
The trip was a joint effort between the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the ecumenical organization KAIROS. Organizers selected six youth as ambassadors: John-Paul Chalykoff, Chelsea Edwards, Helen Knott, Madelynn Slade, Collin Starblanket, and Kendall White. The key points in the ambassadors’ presentation to the committee relate to unequal opportunities in education, the welfare system and health care.
Inequality between provincial and Aboriginal services creates a justice issue that all Christians should care about, said Ed Bianchi, indigenous rights program coordinator for KAIROS. “This is a classic situation where as people of faith we need to stand up for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized and there is probably no group that suffers more from oppression and marginalization in Canada than young, indigenous people,” he said.
Though their concerns include a number of issues, each touches on the level of funding aboriginal programming receives. In education, for example, First Nations’ schools receive $2,000-3,000 less per student than their provincial equivalents, states the report “Honouring our Children.” The family caring society and KAIROS submitted “Honouring our Children” to the UN committee in 2011.
The report also suggests that disagreements between provincial and federal agencies have left many indigenous children without proper health care. And an auditor general’s report from 2008 stated that the funding models used for child welfare were outdated and lead to serious shortfalls for many agencies on reserves.
The ambassadors all come from different backgrounds and have different expectations of what constitutes a successful trip. Kendal White, 17, hopes the presentation will encourage other indigenous youth, including those who have had to leave their communities to attend school.
“I’ll consider it a success if there is at least one youth who hears what we’re talking about and understands that what they’re going through, it isn’t right,” she said at a press conference in Toronto.
For 24-year-old Jean-Paul Chalykoff voicing their concerns isn’t enough, he wants concrete action. “There’s been talk for years and years and years and if it’s just going to be more talk then I don’t see that as a success,” he said.
Madelynn Slade hopes that their presence at the UN will direct the committee’s questioning of Canada in the fall review. “We will be making a difference in a massive way by just helping the United Nations recognize that Canada has not lived up to its agreements when they ratified the UN [Charter on the Rights of Children],” said 22-year-old Slade.
As a child and youth care student, Slade has studied the UN charter, and her classes combined with her personal family experience in the child welfare system prompted her to apply for the trip to Geneva. As a teen she was removed from her home and until recently she wasn’t willing to talk about that experience. “I was ashamed to state that I’d been taken from my home because there’s such a stigma carried with that,” she said. But Slade believes that story will have an impact on committee members. “It gives what I say power,” she said, “I’m able to speak to this from the pain I’ve suffered.”
The young ambassadors were accompanied to Geneva by Bianchi as well as Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Caring Society and Irwin Elman, Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth in Ontario.