Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this very important motion moved by the member for London—Fanshawe.
The Amnesty International report, “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Righting Historic Wrongs, Embracing a Future of Justice and Hope” talked about the urgent need for the declaration. I am going to read from it because it sets the context for why it is important for the House to support the UN declaration on indigenous rights. It states:
Indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized, impoverished and frequently victimized sectors of the societies in which they live. This is true in every region of the world...
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated:
For far too long the hopes and aspirations of indigenous peoples have been ignored; their lands have been taken; their cultures denigrated or directly attacked; their languages and customs suppressed; their wisdom and traditional knowledge overlooked; and their sustainable ways of developing natural resources dismissed. Some have even faced the threat of extinction.... The answer to these grave threats must be to confront them without delay.
That is a very powerful statement and why we need to take a look at supporting the UN declaration.
In this context, we have a long sad and sorry history in this country of appropriating lands, removing children from the care of their parents, residential schools, deliberate attempts to extinguish language, and certainly deliberate attempts to extinguish culture. We only have to look at the potlatch laws in British Columbia in the earlier century.
In that context, I want to talk about a couple of issues. One is around children. Of course, many members of the House have children and grandchildren. We know how near and dear those children are to our hearts and how important it is to make sure that our children grow up in environments that are safe, loving and protective.
The B.C. Aboriginal Child Care Society made a presentation in February 2008 on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, as we can tell from its name, the B.C. Aboriginal Child Care Society's main focus is with children.
In its opening statement it provides a vision and talks about the fact that our children are sacred gifts from the creator and bringing up children is a sacred responsibility, that the well-being of children is indivisible and not separate from the general health and well-being of women, families and indigenous people, communities and nations. Then it goes on to talk about a number of factors that impact on aboriginal children in this country.
It specifically cites a couple of articles from the declaration that directly impact on the ability to protect and care for children in this country. I will not go through all of them but there are a couple that I want to mention. One is article 14 which states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching...
Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
Article 15 states:
Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.
Those articles talk about a framework for how children are raised and cared for. Sadly, in this country a disproportionate number of children are in care. I am going to talk about that a bit more in a few minutes but I first want to touch on a very special child named Jordan.
In the House last December members unanimously supported Jordan's principle. Jordan's principle is about a little boy who, sadly, in his four short years of life, did not enjoy the benefits of a home.
Jordan was a little boy born with complex medical needs and as a result, his family made the very difficult decision of surrendering him to the care of the province because the family could not get the care he needed in his community. After two years of being in hospital, Jordan's circumstances stabilized to the extent that he was able to go into a foster home where he would be provided with specialized care.
This is the sad comment. When we talk about the rights of children and the declaration of indigenous rights, what we had is a child who then spent a further two years in hospital. Why did he spend two more years in hospital? Because the federal and provincial governments argued over who should pay for his care.
We have this tale of a little child who was removed from his family because he could not get care. The family gave him up, surrendered him because he could not get care. Then governments argued over dollars and cents to the extent that the child died in hospital. They went so far as to argue about who should pay for shower heads.
Unfortunately, this child's story is not an isolated one. In this day and age in this country, many children from coast to coast to coast are in exactly the same circumstances.
The Norway House Cree Nation has 37 special needs children who are currently living with their parents and getting additional care as needed. These are children with complex medical needs. Unfortunately, it is another case of jurisdictional dispute. Many of those 37 children's parents are having to look at surrendering them to provincial foster care because we cannot get the federal government to come to the table and agree on a child centre approach, to agree that children should be put first. If that is not a fundamental human right, what is?
The irony of this is that it would cost the government more to have these children in provincial foster care than it would to keep them in their homes in Norway House Cree Nation.
That is fundamentally wrong. Yet we cannot get the governments to move on this. The federal government could demonstrate leadership, could demonstrate its commitment to human rights by coming to the table and saying that it will pay for those children to stay in their homes where they will get the cultural support, where they will get the language support, where they will benefit from the elders.
Norway House Cree Nation is limping from funding crisis to funding crisis. There is a two month extension right now, but in two months' time, many of those kids could end up in provincial care. That is a shameful crisis in this country.
Jordan's principle has widespread support. There is a coalition of many groups and organizations across this country who support Jordan's principle, which says that we would come from a child centre approach and put kids first.
In its journal, the Canadian Medical Association had an editorial about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It said:
...we endorse putting the medical needs of First Nations' children first. We also make this recommendation: that if the provincial, territorial and federal governments ignore Jordan's Principle and entangle themselves in financial or jurisdictional battles first, then governments deserve to be sued, in the most winnable test case that First Nations' advocates can manage.
Once again we are talking about forcing first nations into litigation because government will not do the right thing. If we truly care about working and middle class families in this country, if we truly care about their children, we would not force first nations into litigation to make sure their kids are well looked after.
Part of this coalition is called Many Hands, One Dream. “Health care professionals know all too well the need for Jordan's principle,” said Dr. Kent Saylor, a pediatrician in Kahnawake, Quebec and chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society's First Nations and Inuit Health Committee, “We see families struggling to get the services that their children are entitled to, while governments argue over who will pay the bill”.
While we are talking about children, I also want to talk about the fact that unfortunately the Assembly of First Nations and the organization that Ms. Cindy Blackstock works with had to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. They filed a complaint regarding the disproportionate number of children in care and the fact that many of these children receive less funding as first nations children on reserve than they do if they are in provincial care. In some of the provinces there is a 22% discrepancy. A child in provincial care gets 22% more toward his or her care. In addition, measures are sadly lacking around putting those children first in terms of least disruptive measures, support to their families.
As Ms. Blackstock has pointed out on any number of occasions, for many of these children it is not an issue of abuse, but an issue of poverty. If we want to make the lives of families better and the lives of these children better, we have to look at proactive measures to address the poverty in many first nations communities.
A number of issues around children need to be addressed. The United Nations declaration on indigenous rights goes a long way to providing some benchmarks in order to do that.
As well, I want to talk about education.
Article 13 in the declaration talks about the fact that indigenous peoples have the rights to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures and to designate and retain their own names for community places and persons.
Paragraph 2 of article 13 says:
States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that indigenous peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.
Article 14, and I referred to this earlier but it is important in this context, states:
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.
2. Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination.
3. States shall, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.
When it comes to education, on any number of levels, we see a violation of human rights in our country.
My colleague from Timmins—James Bay has been leading a fight on a school in Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat is a community where the school was contaminated by a diesel spill, I believe, in 1979. It took many years to have those children taken out of that contaminated school. They were put in portables. The portables have a lot of problems with them. I am sure most of us in the House would say that after our children had been in portables for eight years, some of them the entire life of their school time, it would be time to ensure they had a school.
The declaration talks about a right to education. In Canada, when we talk about the right to education, we talk about an education that provides the full range of opportunities. We want to see our kids in safe schools. We want to see that those schools are well-equipped. We want to see that the students have access to teachers who are well-qualified.
We have schools like Attawapiskat and many other cases across the country where first nations children on reserve are subjected to substandard school buildings. We have stories about the doors not closing properly, or about mould in the schools, or about some kids being farmed out across the community in order to receive their education.
On the K to 12 system, we had testimony at the aboriginal affairs committee. We studied post-secondary education. We heard consistently that education was one of the doorways to raise families and communities out of poverty.
If we are not providing children an opportunity in that K to 12 system to get access to an adequate education so they can graduate from high school and go on to a post-secondary institution, then we are not fulfilling our duty. We know about the honour of the Crown and the fiduciary responsibilities, but we see a government that continues to fail in this.
We recently asked for some statistics on the number of schools that currently needed to be built. The figures we received indicated that 39 schools across Canada needed to be built, which would take approximately $300,000 to build them. With the amount of surpluses we had over the last 10 or 12 years, that was ample money there to build the schools to ensure that first nations children not only had the schools, but also had the operating budgets to ensure they had an adequate education.
In addition, language is a big issue. In my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan the Cowichan tribes have done a tremendous amount of work around preservation of the Halkomelem language. They are working hard to build a dictionary, to get oral testimony from the elders, to provide language labs in the schools, to ensure that mentoring and support is in place, yet they are constantly having to struggle to find the funding in order to ensure they can deliver that very important language service.
I believe back in 2006, Justice Berger in Nunavut delivered a report around the state of land claims in Nunavut. He talked about the importance of language. He estimated that approximately $20 million was required to do some of the bridging around education. Not only have we not seen any funds come about as a result of the report in 2006, we have not even had an official response from the current government to Justice Berger's report.
The commitments that were made in the land claims agreement were that a significant proportion of the employees of the Nunavut government would come from the people of Nunavut. The government is lagging behind in those commitments and part of it is because of the fact that people do not have access to the education they need.
When we talk about education, it does start and stop at the K to 12 system. It is also very much part of post-secondary education. The two articles I quoted, article 13 and article 14, talked about the rates of education.
The First Nations Technical Institute has attempted over a number of years to ensure it has adequate long term funding. The aboriginal affairs committee did a report called, “No Higher Priority”. As part of the recommendations that came out of that report, the committee talked about the fact that indigenous institutions were not eligible to receive operating grants, special grants, capital and infrastructure grants or research support for mainstream institutions. Most operate on short term funding grants. The lack of formal recognition of indigenous institutions also means that they do not have the authority to grant provincially recognized certificates, diplomas and degrees.
Over a number of years FNTI has faced significant cuts. In January 2008 it did an analysis on the figures. At that time it was facing a 66% cut from Indian and Northern Affairs to its core budget from the previous fiscal year. This would represent an 84% decrease since 2004.
The sad thing about FNTI is it is an aboriginal controlled institution. It opened in 1985. Hundreds and hundreds of students over the years have received their diplomas and degrees and have gone on and had success in employment. It has had some very successful employment placement as a result of that. I believe roughly 80% of the graduates have gone on to employment or further education, and that is a success.
FNTI has worked hard in partnership with other institutions. Even though it is not an accredited institution, it offers a number of programs, including an aviation program, which is a unique first nations program that gets students from across Canada. It has a first nations public administration and governance program with Ryerson, which is the most successful aboriginal university initiative in Ontario. It has broken new ground by partnering with Queen's University in a masters in public policy. The Mohawk adult language immersion program with Trend University is having ground breaking success in creating new speakers in an endangered language. It has pioneered the practices of community based intense mode delivery. It has delivered initiatives in urban centres, fly-in communities and everything else in between.
It is making great progress in terms of lifelong learning. It has done something called prior learning assessment, which is really important in terms of recognizing a student's life experience and translating that into the academic setting.
Because this institution is not an accredited institution, but works with other accredited institutions, it has not been eligible for some of the funding transfers that come from the federal government to the provincial governments. Because of the fact that it is working partnership with some other accredited institutions, it is often not in a position to keep the percentage of the tuition fees to which other institutions are entitled.
The government's response has been, go out and raise funds from its alumni. It is a small institution. It has not had thousands and thousands of alumni coming through its doors.
In the context of the UN declaration on indigenous rights, which clearly calls for support for education, language, culture, surely it would make sense that when we have a successful aboriginal institution, that we would put money into it.
The Conservative government has talked consistently about the importance of skills training in aboriginal communities. We have an institution that it could fund, support and ensure that more students could have access. Instead what it does is it cuts the funding. This institution needs is multi-year long term funding so it can come with some assurance to its faculty, students and communities and say that it will be around for the long term.
From working in an academic institution, I know this kind of long term stability is very important. We want to get elders involved in these institutions as well. Elders are going to want to know that this institution is going to be around for the long term.
Therefore, I urge all members of the House to support this very important declaration.