Defending rights of the child

(Edmonton) A professor in the Faculty of Extension will accompany six Aboriginal youth to Geneva next month to share their grievances with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The teenagers, from First Nations communities across Canada, will describe to the committee on Feb. 6 what it feels like to grow up receiving fewer government services such as education, health care and child welfare on reserves, says Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

“These kids want to say, ‘We know we’re getting less because of who we are,’” says Blackstock, who says highlighting revelations of poor living conditions in Attawapiskat will be high on the delegation’s agenda.

“It wasn’t OK for African-American children to be told to get into a separate line because of who they were, and yet we’re doing that right here in Canada. [The children] want to say, ‘We know what’s happening to us, we know why, and we’re really worried about our future.’”

Blackstock and her group struck a partnership with the extension faculty last year to conduct community-engaged research on the rights of children. She helped the Geneva youth delegation write its presentation and raise funds for the trip.

A member of the Gitksan Nation, she has worked in the field of child and family services for more than 20 years. Her key interests include exploring and addressing the causes of disadvantage for Aboriginal children and families by promoting equitable and culturally based interventions. In partnership with indigenous peoples around the globe, Blackstock has helped develop United Nations instruments on indigenous child rights.

“What I want to do is raise a generation of children who know they can be active agents of change,” she says. “So when they grow up concerned about the environment or persons with disabilities or some other concern, they have just the tools to change Canada for the better.”

The trip to Geneva was inspired by the late Shannen Koostachin, a youth-education advocate from Attawapiskat First Nation who met with the federal minister of Indian Affairs in 2008 demanding proper schools and culturally based education for First Nations children on reserves. Her own school was in run-down portable trailers situated beside a toxic waste dump.

Koostachin was nominated in 2008 for the international Children’s Peace Prize, awarded by Nobel laureates. She died in a car accident in 2010. An advocacy group called Shannon’s Dream was set up in her honour.

Sixteen-year-old Chelsea Edwards represents Shannen’s Dream and is among the delegates going to Geneva next month. “I hope the prime minister will do the right thing, but we are tired of waiting.”

“There are multiple solutions on the table, and racial discrimination against children is not a legitimate fiscal-restraint measure,” says Blackstock. “Children only have one childhood. Canada must treat First Nations children fairly now.”