Perspectives

Reconciliation in Action: Educators and Students standing in Solidarity with First Nations Children and Canadian Values

By Cindy Blackstock, PhD
October 4, 2012

Engaging students in social justice campaigns provides an opportunity to enhance understanding of community, generosity, and kindness, while practicing problem solving skills. The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada is honoured to work with educators and thousands of students across Canada who are taking peaceful and respectful reconciliation-based action to address longstanding inequities in First Nations education, health and child welfare.

The children are standing in solidarity with First Nations children and standing on guard as active citizens for the values that define Canada the most – fairness, justice and respect. Through their engagement in the Shannen’s Dream, Jordan’s Principle and I am a witness campaigns described below, children learn how to critically analyze situations and take peaceful and respectful citizenship action for causes they care about. Educators report that children are coming to them wanting to take up the campaigns and integrate them into their learning and educators are finding children are improving their academic, citizenship and personal agency skills in the process. This article describes the campaigns and how the educators and students have helped make real progress in addressing the inequities.

Shannen’s Dream

At age 15, Shannen Koostachin inspired the largest child-led social justice campaign in Canadian history. Read Shannen’s story below, and discover how thousands of children and adults motivated by Shannen’s Dream are making a significant impact on the lives of First Nations Children.

First Nations children deserve the same chance to grow up safely at home, get a good education, be healthy, and be proud of their cultures. This was clear to Shannen Koostachin.

Shannen started kindergarten in the year 2000 at the Attawapiskat First Nation. She was an excited little girl like any kindergarten kid and wanted to go to school. But the only school in her community was closed because it sat on top of 30,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Over the next eight years, three Ministers of Indian Affairs across two political parties promised Shannen and her friends a school and did not deliver. Instead they went to portable trailers set beside the toxic waste dump separated from it by only a chain link fence. The trailers deteriorated so much that often there wasn't heat in the portables, and mice would eat their sandwiches. There's no money for a library, no money for computers, no money for proper teachers and no funding for a science lab.

In grade eight, Shannen organized First Nations and non-Aboriginal children to send letters to Ministers, Members of Parliament, and the Prime Minister, to tell the Government of Canada to end the inequity for First Nations education.

Shannen did everything she could to fight for proper education for First Nations children including travelling to Ottawa and meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs to ask for a new school. The Minister at that time told her that the Government could not afford a new school.

Shannen went on to speak to anyone who would listen. She was one of 45 children in the world to be nominated for a Children's Peace Prize given out by the Nobel Laureates. She is one of our true Canadian heroes.

Sadly not too long after her 15th birthday, living hundreds of miles away from her family to get the quality of education that other Canadian children receive, Shannen died in a car accident. She lived her life having never been treated equally by the Government of Canada.

Shannen would have graduated this year.

Shortly after Shannen died so tragically, her friends created a Facebook page called Shannen’s Dream. That page not only memorialized Shannen in the minds of her friends and family, but created a means to continue her legacy. Shannen’s Dream for safe and comfy schools has helped students become engaged in social justice campaigns in Ottawa and across the country.

Jordan’s Principle

First Nations children have a right to access government services on the same terms as all other children. The problem is that jurisdictional payment squabbles between, and within, Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments often result in First Nations children having to jump through additional hoops to access services or being denied services altogether. Jordan’s Principle is a child first principle to resolving jurisdictional disputes that calls on all governments to provide the service to the child first and figure out the payment issues later. It is named in memory of Jordan River Anderson of Norway House Cree Nation who remained in hospital unnecessarily for over two years as governments argued over who should pay for his at home care. Sadly, Jordan passed away at the age of 5 never having spent a day in a family home. The Anderson family and Norway House Cree Nation wanted to make sure this did not happen to other families so Jordan’s Principle was created and it was passed unanimously in the House of Commons on December 12, 2007.

The day the Jordan’s Principle motion passed, Ernest Anderson, Jordan’s father, cautioned that he did not want to see the good done in his son’s name that day just be a moral victory – he expected implementation. Unfortunately, the federal government has failed to properly implement Jordan’s Principle insisting that it be narrowed to only apply to children with complex medical needs with multiple service providers. This narrowing happened even though there is no mention of narrowing Jordan’s Principle in the motion that passed in the House of Commons.

Maurina Beadle and her son Jeremy raise important questions about Canada’s implementation of Jordan’s Principle even with children with complex medical needs and multiple service providers. Jeremy has cerebral palsy and autism. His mother Maurina is a single parent who provides loving care for Jeremy in their home in Pictou Landing First Nation in Nova Scotia. Maurina had a double stroke leaving her physically unable to meet Jeremy’s needs so she asked for in home support services to help Jeremy while she recovered from her stroke. A Supreme Court of Nova Scotia ruling suggested that the services Jeremy needed must be provided if the family lived off reserve. The Canadian government refused to provide the service and suggested to Maurina that she consider placing Jeremy in foster care or in an institution. Maurina refused and brought a legal case against the Canadian government alleging that Canada’s failure to implement Jordan’s Principle in her son’s case was a breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case was argued in Federal Court on June 11, 2012 and a ruling is expected soon.

Meanwhile, thousands of children know that it is simply not right to say no to a child because of who they are. The children, supported by educators, are taking action by learning about Jordan’s Principle, letting others know about it and writing letters to the government asking them to uphold the Jordan’s Principle motion. There is a Jordan’s Principle Web site where individuals and organizations can learn more and join groups like UNICEF, the Red Cross and the Canadian Pediatric Society in expressing their support for Jordan’s Principle.

Meanwhile, back in Norway House Cree Nation, community members join together each August to host a Jordan’s Principle parade. Children, young people, Elders and others create hand made signs, parade floats, balloons, t-shirts featuring the blue teddy bear that Jordan loved and is a symbol of Jordan’s Principle. Jordan’s community know this child gave a gift to the rest of the children in Canada and that we all need to work together to ensure his legacy is fully honoured.

I am a Witness: Have-a-Heart Day

The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2007. The complaint alleged that the Government of Canada is discriminating against First Nations by providing inequitable child welfare funding on reserves contributing to record numbers of First Nations children being placed in foster care.

On Feb. 14, 2012, hundreds of students of all ages gathered at the Federal Court to witness part of the case. The students were not asked to take sides, but simply watch the case and make up their own minds about what was going on. You might wonder how much the younger children really understood while inside the courtroom. In their innocence, children understand the case quite well. They asked questions such as, “why aren’t the lawyers talking about the children,” and “why isn’t the government answering the judge’s questions?” Children understand that basic human rights must be accessible to everyone, including First Nations children. You can read more about the case, and see photos and videos of the students from the I am a Witness campaign at fnwitness.ca.

As a part of the same campaign, students across Canada were celebrating Have-a-Heart Day. Thousands of students and supporters from across the country sent valentines to the Prime Minister and their Members of Parliament, telling them to have a heart for First Nations children by providing equitable funding for child welfare services and education. Hundreds of students walked to Parliament Hill to deliver their letters, while those who could not attend in person were able to participate by sending valentines without incurring any costs or needing to fundraise since it is free to send mail to Parliament Hill. The atmosphere at Parliament Hill was powerful. There was no cloud of guilt overshadowing the demonstration. People were smiling. They were proud to be there, promoting their values and beliefs. The students were dedicated to the cause, sharing their thoughts and the wisdom of their innocence. To the children, the concept was not ‘complicated,’ as many adults tend to describe the inequity that First Nations children experience. The message was quite simple – First Nations children deserve the chance to grow up safely in their homes, be healthy, get a good education, and be proud of their cultures.

On April 18, 2012, the Federal Court quashed Canada’s efforts to have the case dismissed on a legal technicality and ordered that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal move forward with a full hearing on the discrimination matter. Hearing dates are set for September 2012 and children and caring adults are already planning to learn more about the case and follow the hearings on-line or in person.

Only a few days after Have-a-Heart Day, a motion to implement Shannen’s Dream was passed in the House of Commons. It was clear that the students were heard that day on Parliament Hill.

Teaching Resources

In addition to the resource rich Shannen’s Dream, I am a witness and Jordan’s Principle Web sites, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society has created resources on community-based reconciliation known as the Touchstones of Hope for Indigenous Children, Youth and Families (Touchstones). The Touchstones resource sets out five simple principles to guide reconciliation set within a four-stage reconciliation process. More information on these free on-line resources is available at http://www.fncaringsociety.com/touchstones-hope-gallery-and-resources

The Caring Society also has a free on-line searchable database on Aboriginal children and families and a free on-line journal called the First Peoples Child and Family Review.

Children’s letters written for Have-a Heart Day have been compiled into a book the children titled Children’s Voices have Power: Children Standing in Solidarity with First Nations Children. This powerful book, available from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, is complemented by curriculum developed by elementary school teachers Danielle Fontaine and Annie Antikov.

Educational resources on residential schools are available from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Legacy of Hope Foundation and the award-winning Project of the Heart developed by high school educator Sylvia Smith and colleagues.

The availability of free on-line resources makes it possible for all educators and students to learn about Aboriginal peoples and engage in positive reconciliation-based change.

Be inspired and join the reconciliation movement

Shannen’s Dream has inspired children across Canada. Students at Pierre Elliott Trudeau School in Gatineau guided by teacher Lisa Howell, developed a powerful video on Shannen’s Dream called Shannen’s Dream is Our Dream,Too. Students from all over Canada have taken the initiative to educate other students, teachers, and principles encouraging them to get involved.

Children from Ottawa and Gatineau have joined Caring Society staff in delivering keynote presentations at large conferences to share what they know about Shannen’s Dream, Jordan’s Principle and the I am a witness campaign, what they have done to make a difference, how it makes them feel to be part of the campaigns and how others can help. A high school student designed t-shirts for the I am a witness campaign while another, a gifted photographer, took pictures of the Have a Heart rally. Several classes of students and their teachers attended the court hearings and their reflections on what they observed and learned have been shared with the United Nations and posted on the I am a witness website.

Children involved in these campaigns are not exploited for political gain. They are not asked to take sides of political parties or protest on ambiguous moral issues. They have been given the means to explore the facts on their own, and provided with the opportunity to give voice to their views. The goal of these campaigns is to promote critical thinking and active citizenship – to recognize when something unjust is happening in society and show them that their voice matters.

For more information on cost-free ways that teachers and students can take action, visit www.fncaringsociety.com.

Cindy Blackstock, PhD is Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and Associate Professor, University of Alberta. A member of the Gitksan Nation, she has worked in the field of child and family services for over 20 years. An author of over 50 publications, her key interests include exploring, and addressing, the causes of disadvantage for Aboriginal children and families by promoting equitable and culturally based interventions.

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