Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Aboriginal realities
June 26, 2006

Well, well. Aboriginal children are dying at higher rates than their non-aboriginal peers. I don’t suppose anyone could be surprised at that.
What will we do about it? If past behavior is any indicator, not much. We’ve been telling each other stories of aboriginal disaster on any number of fronts for decades now, but doing very little. The result: Things just keep getting worse for Canada’s aboriginals.
Being aboriginal in Canada is now very much like being black in the United States. Just belonging to either of those racial backgrounds is now a risk factor all on its own for things like youth suicide, drug addiction and diabetes, not to mention a predictor of future income and level of education.
Our country’s aboriginals are three times more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Aboriginal youth are at higher risk of suicide, addiction and obesity. Diabetes is near-epidemic. HIV infections are rising sharply.
The dropout rate for aboriginals is an unbelievable 70 per cent. Almost half of the 10,000 children in the B.C. government’s care at any given point are aboriginal. That distinction adds a whole new set of risk factors to their troubled lives, as being a government ward is very nearly as bad as being an aboriginal in terms of the pall it casts over how well your life will turn out.
My recollection is of much hand-wringing in the past 20 years as to what could be done about such terrible revelations. But it’s clear that little of it had an effect. Case in point: School attendance for aboriginals actually fell between 1981 and 2001 in B.C., even while debates were raging on all fronts in that period around the importance of improving high-school graduation rates. The province’s rates were among the worst in Canada.
Fortunately, all is not lost. I attended the Victoria Native Friendship Center’s grand opening this week in the former Hampton Elementary, and felt the power of good ideas at work in the many busy rooms of the friendship centre.
A destitute and ruined aboriginal population need not be a Canadian certainty. People know what needs to be done, and it’s as fundamental as mom-and-tot groups and a place for kids heading into trouble to hang out. No magic involved - just thoughtful and sustained effort, led by people who know how to make good things happen.
If we’d gotten started all those years ago when we first identified a disaster in the making, we’d be a long way down that road by now. But talking about aboriginals almost always slides into a furious debate around whether they even deserve help and empowerment. Sure, some mistakes were made around aboriginals, the argument goes: cultural genocide; child kidnappings; forcing aboriginals to use a different door at B.C. beer parlours, to name a few from the last 50 years. Get over it.
But the terrible history of Canada’s aboriginals is exactly why everything is so wrong for them today. It was a war of sorts, and the damage has accumulated through the generations. And as the stats reveal, the situation worsens for every year we do nothing.
Where will we start? At the beginning, of course. The world will be saved through happy, healthy families connected to vibrant communities.
Making that happen on the ground means paying attention to everything from child mortality rates and levels of community involvement to the impact of opening another mall on the far side of town. Everything matters. Equally importantly, we need to act on the information. The importance of studies notwithstanding, it’s action that moves things forward in this world.
Seeing Victoria’s native friendship centre in its sprawling new digs - kids bouncing on the playground equipment outside, moms pushing strollers along the wide hallways - was heartening evidence of just such action. Families are being reborn at the centre. And that will be the way that Canada will ultimately combat the discouraging statistics around aboriginal health and well-being - one friendship centre at a time.
The lessons from a country that was unable to rouse itself to action around such issues are as close as our southern border. U.S. inaction around social policy has fueled widespread urban decay, and the dramatic growth of a poorly educated and hostile underclass operating outside the strictures of mainstream culture. In Canadian communities like Saskatoon and Winnipeg, the number of aboriginal gang members is on the rise, setting the stage for a similar disconnect.
Terry Smith, B.C.’s chief coroner, commented in Vancouver this week on his report, a review of 640 child deaths since 2003. He said his report’s findings will “save lives.”
And if the report sparks action to prevent aboriginal kids from dying young and in violent circumstance, it just might. But for as long as it sits on the shelf, it’s just more words.

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