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Racism explored at diversity breakfast

Thursday April 26, 2012
photo by Rick Garrick/Wawatay News

A group of Biwasse’aa (Neighbourhood Capacity Building Project) staff were on hand to accept a donation to their program during Diversity Thunder Bay’s 6th Annual Celebration Breakfast, held March 23 at the Valhalla Inn.

Former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario James Bartleman called for equal funding of First Nations education during his keynote speech at Diversity Thunder Bay’s 6th Annual Celebration Breakfast, held March 23 at the Valhalla Inn.

“We need to have justice for the Native children who live on reserve and who go to schools that are falling apart,” said Bartleman, a Chippewas of Mnjikaning band member, diplomat and author of five books, including As Long as the Rivers Flow. “We need simple human justice so they receive the same level of funding as non-native kids.”

Bartleman said there are thousands of First Nation teachers, doctors, lawyers and pipefitters who attended the provincial school system and had access to better-qualified teachers, libraries and other benefits.

“We have to address racism in Canadian society as a whole, not just against Native people, and the place to do that is in the school,” Bartleman said. “Those of you who are my age probably remember when they campaigned against litter, against tossing cigarette butts and cigarette packages out of cars. That started by teaching the kids in school, and the kids taught their parents. We need to do more about that, more about racism in the school curriculum.”

Former Ontario regional chief Charles Fox believes First Nation schools are receiving less than 80 per cent of the funding provincial schools receive.

“I think it is much lower than that,” Fox said after listening to Bartleman call for equal funding for First Nations education. “I think that more research needs to be done on that — I would guess about 50-60 per cent funding that our schools get.”

Fox also noted Bartleman’s comments on suicides in Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory averaging about 25 per year since 1997.

“I think overall the messages he delivered are good,” Fox said. “As the chair of the advisory committee commented, it is very sobering. Certainly the challenge is there for us to look at the whole issue of residential schools.”

More than 130,000 First Nations children were sent to residential schools, which were in existence for more than 130 years until the last one was shut down in 1996.

“I am a survivor of the residential school system,” said Fox, who attended Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie. “I suffered the sexual exploitation, the spiritual abuse, the emotional and physical abuse in that institution. It is difficult; it is challenging.”

Fox chose the path of healing, but it wasn’t until he was well into his adult years that he acknowledged what happened in residential school.

“A lot of our people live in denial,” Fox said. “We need the political will by governments to move the agenda forward on these issues.”

Bartleman said while Canadians feel proud about having a strong multicultural society, a recent public opinion poll suggests millions of Canadians would not marry, live beside or work beside someone from a different ethnic background.

“It is a good time to take stock and we have a lot to do,” Bartleman said. “This week the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination produced its report on Canada’s record. It was highly critical of Canada’s treatment of Native people. It calls out in particular for allowing violence against Native women — 600 disappeared with no one seeming to care when it was happening, huge numbers of children in care, excessive incarceration of Native people, high levels of poverty, inadequate employment, housing, drinking water and health and education.”

Bartleman recalled an incident that illustrates why these issues need to be addressed, noting a 2002 trip to NAN’s fly-in communities shortly after he was named Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

“I flew into Kashechewan and as my plane was circling the airport there was a plane taxiing to park near a great crowd of people,” Bartleman said. “When I landed I asked the people what was going on and they said a 13-year-old girl had killed herself. I said why. He looked at me like I didn’t really understand what was going on, and said that she had no hope.”

The Regional Multicultural Youth Council and the Biwasse’aa (Neighbourhood Capacity Building Project) received donations to their programs during the diversity breakfast due to unprecedented support by sponsors.

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