THUNDER BAY – Leader’s Ledger – Special to NNL – Hi, My name is Kendall Melissa White Twain, my spirit name is Waa Waa Tig Waane Ashik, which means Woman of Northern Lights. I am going to start with a quote that reflects on how I feel about my lifelong dream to bring awareness to aboriginal youth issues.
“Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all.”
This quote reflects on the passion that I have developed to change the rights that we have been affected by. Recently I have felt like we as a people have been severely overlooked. It’s hard to think about how we seem to be not worth the attention, when we really are no different than everyone else.
The first thing asked by the committee was if Canada was keeping its promise that it had made to first nations youth.
Look around… do you see change, stability, or our rights being enforced? The government is cutting off funding in places that are depended on. It’s unfair that a government can hold the fate of an entire culture, and overlook it, letting it slip away. In the protection of children’s rights, it says they want to help meet the basic needs to expand the opportunities so the youth can reach their full potential. Then why do you deny us schools? I am speaking for the youth that are too afraid to speak for themselves.
Inequalities in child welfare can cause serious damage to youth. In a 6 year period from 1995 until 2001 the amount of aboriginal youth put into child welfare rose by 71.5 percent. The main reason aboriginal youths are put into child care is poverty, poor housing, and substance abuse by the care giver. Often the youth are brought into non-aboriginal homes, where they can be deprived of their culture. Along with culture deprivation, we face racism just like any other race. It makes it hard to hold onto a sense of pride when you are alone. I, myself was put into child care as a very young youth. I am one of the few youth that have ever been adopted back into my reserve by a completely different family. This enabled me to be able to grow up in an environment where I belonged, with my people. If more youth had the opportunity to grow up where they belonged, we would be able to have a more stable culture.
Inequalities in health care is currently a very troubling issue that does not personally affect me, but upsets me. Health care is an issue not only in Aboriginals, but also all around the world. One of the stories that I heard about was the story of Jordan. Jordan was a young boy that was born, and died in the hospital. Jordan had an illness that had kept him in the hospital, and by the time he was able to leave the federal and provincial government both did not want to pay. All because of the fact that the government decided that they did not want to pay, an innocent boy wasted his life away behind the walls of a place most of us hate being in for just a few hours. It angers me that government officials can be at home with their families sitting on the couch, while Jordan was in the hospital. Jordan never received that opportunity to go home and have a place where he could feel safe, angry or happy. Jordan was denied his rights to life because of the financial issues that were at hand. Jordan never got to experience sitting at the dinner table with his family to tell them how school was, or have sleepovers in his bedroom. Is that any way a child should have to live life? Have we reached a point in life where the government can decide who has the right to live or not? Jordan passed away in the hospital at the age of five, living an unfulfilled life from our perspective, but the only life he ever knew. Now we will never know what Jordan could have become for the world. That boy could have been the next inspirational speaker that could have changed the world. He could have been one of the best youth ambassadors, but all because of a financial dispute, we will only know him as the boy who was denied his rights.
Inequalities in education are one of the most important things. Some may say we are what we know, so what happens if we are denied the right to knowledge? What does that make us? Are we not worthy of knowledge? There once was a girl who lived about an hour north from myself; a girl who was tagged in pictures with my friends on Facebook. At first, I never would have recognized her, and I never knew that she was just like me and fighting for something. One day I was traveling to school on my bus, when we had to alter our route due to an accident. The youth who lost her life on the road that day, was the youth from the pictures and her name was Shannen. When she died Shannen’s dream became public, it was about her dream for a real school in her reserve. Since elementary school Shannen protested for the rights of a real school, unlike the dangerous portables that they currently were using. She complained of rodent issues, and cold temperatures during the winter, but no one listened. She sent out letters asking for donations, or support for a new school, but no one answered. Shannen had to lose her life before anyone started noticing what those youth were going through. Is it just me, or does it seem like aboriginal youths have to lose their lives before they’re worthy of being noticed? Where is the justice in that? I personally had to move away from my family at the age of thirteen just so that I could go and get a proper high school education. Why is it fair that I had to leave my family and friends behind because the government won’t fund us for schools?
Next we were asked if we think that our culture is important to our youth and whether or not we have enough of these programs in our schools and communities. My answer is yes and no. Yes culture is so important to youth even if we are too ignorant to notice it. This summer I was on of approximately 70 youth in the world that got to go on an arctic expedition. Everyone there seemed to be passionate and talented, so I felt very low because I had nothing unique. I had brought my hand drum with my, but I didn’t plan on playing it at first. One day I had the confidence to teach the other youths how to sing and play my drum, and while I was there I got a feeling I had never felt before. People were excited to learn and see me play, and I had never seen someone that interested in my culture. I got an extreme boost of confidence knowing that, the small things in life that I do, are actually large meaningful things to other people. This is the main reason I believe our culture is important. It identifies us as who we are and sets us apart from others in a good way! We are able to have something unique that we do that gives us confidence in ourselves and our culture. We really do need many more cultural programs in our schools and communities though I’m blessed to have both of those. My school hosts a weekly Aboriginal Students Links program where the high school students meet with the university students and we learn about our culture, and then go out into the city and use our knowledge. Being around other people who are so happy and proud of who they are, really makes you proud as well. It also helps knowing that when there are issues such as racism there are people to talk to about it, that actually understand. Communities need these programs for the same reasons, not only youth need these types of support and sense of pride.
Finally we are asked to share our ideas on how we can change the inequalities in child welfare, health care and education. I have many ideas, and just the fact that someone who has the chance to implement change excites me because I have the opportunity to inspire someone else! I am going to start with my idea for health care. Personally I don’t have many issues with health care so it is hard for me to create an idea for change. In my reserve we are given sums of money for things such as education, and when we need it, we apply for it. My idea is to have a link between all reserves around Canada, a sort of Link for health. All reserves have issues at one point or another, and once in a while we all need a little help. With these links we would have the chance to ask our fellow communities for a small sum of support for youth like Jordan when the families cannot pay all alone. It’s not much of an idea, but it could spark into something amazing. For education I would make change by either creating more high schools, or having aboriginal youth have the opportunity to apply for free homeschooling or online schooling if there are no schools in the area. For a less financial cost a personalized Aboriginal Education website could be made that is just like all the others, where they can take online courses, and even take ones specifically for them such as Algonquin or Cree language classes. My last idea is my most important one and this is the implementation of support centers in communities. Youths are taken away because of issues in the families, and by taking these youth away it can cause issues in the youth therefore not removing the problem but prolonging it. Lets estimate that it takes about $50,000 to remove a youth, and then pay compensation for the family taking the youth, paying the social worker, etc. By using that $50,000 you can build a small support group in the community to help with alcohol and drug abuse, therefore creating a place where they are comfortable. No one will want to solve their problems in a new place, with high costs. So for the cost of one youth being removed, we will have to opportunity to keep families together.
I would like to thank you very much for listening to my dreams. I am a 17 year old youth who was put into foster care at the age of 3 and taken away from my mother. I was adopted back into my reserve when I was five, and never thought about how lucky I was. When I went to a school in the city in elementary I had to go to court twice after being beat up because of my race. When I moved away for high school I was teased about my culture, my beliefs, and the way I lived. I got involved in drugs, and often skipped school and didn’t try. After nearly a year, I tried to take my life. I didn’t succeed, but still I was not very optimistic afterward despite being told maybe there was a reason I lived. Three years I lived in a state of depression, going in and out of the hospital. My grades were bad, I lost all my friends, and I was utterly alone. One summer on my reserve, they had the faith in me to present all of our information from our youth project to improve our reserve and it sparked confidence in me. I went on to join clubs such as the environmental team, and I began to work with a non-profit called the Temagami Community Foundations. I then got accepted to go on my Arctic expedition with Students on Ice. All of these things began a huge passion inside me to come out. When I heard about this opportunity I literally skipped a few heart beats. People tell me that I will do great things, but I procrastinated until the last day to enter my essay because I’m worried that I will fail. Failure wouldn’t be not being accepted, it would be not being able to influence change. That’s why I’m doing this, because from what you’ve seen I’ve been hurt. I want youth to go to school feeling pride, and not caring what others say. I want to help youth be strong and regain their rights, and this is a step to that.
The suffering of native youth has gone public, yet still you bring us here. Are the cries, pleas and protests for help not enough? Why do we have to fight for something we’re supposed to have? My story may not be like those suffering youth but the point is that there shouldn’t be so many youth with these stories in a developed country.
I’d like to finish by saying that I may not have the best answers to your questions but that is what makes me human and all I ever wanted to be was considered an equal human with faults and rights just like everyone else.
Kendall White was one of six youth delegates who spoke before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a group that monitors Canada’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.