Despite being the province with the poorest children in Canada, the future is looking a little brighter for the youth of British Columbia. According to a new report from the provincial representative for children and youth and the provincial health officer, teen pregnancy rates are down, youth suicide rates have declined, and nearly 80 per cent of kids graduate from high school within six years of completing Grade 8.
But the Growing Up In B.C. report is not all good news. Unlike their non-aboriginal peers, aboriginal youth are far more likely to use drugs or alcohol, more likely to be removed from their families and put into government care and more likely to underachieve in school.
“While on the whole I think that the news is good, it clearly does confirm that there is a pattern of vulnerability in some children in this province. Aboriginal children stand out as being particularly at risk,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall at the report’s release on October 18. “And these patterns of vulnerability can lead to lifelong consequences: they can increase your likelihood of having chronic diseases as an adult, poorer health status, lower lifelong earnings, higher unemployment rates, as well as less participation and connection to others and to society.”
The report, which took three years to complete, looks at the wellbeing of children in the province through data available for six indicators: health; learning; safety; family economic well-being; family, peer and community connections; and behaviour. Kendall and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the representative for children and youth, invited outside experts from across the country to analyze the data, producing what Turpel-Lafond called “the most comprehensive report on child wellbeing that has been released in Canada.”
According to the report, aboriginal kids are six times as likely as non-aboriginal children to be in government care, which leads to other disturbing trends such as the lowest test scores out of any measureable group in the province, almost six times the suicide attempts and over 50 per cent of kids in care, aboriginal or not, report being physically mistreated or abused.
It’s a rough life for a child, and one Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs knows well—he was taken into government care as an infant and didn’t leave until he was an adult. While he experienced his share of hardship, including racism and alcohol abuse, Phillip believes the world kids grow up in today is much more challenging.
“When I grew up, the value was when you got married, you stayed married. It’s a life long commitment, you didn’t just simply walk out. Everyone was expected to earn their way, to get a job. If you didn’t go to school, you were expected to go to work,” says Phillip. “Back in those times it was alcohol, that was pretty much what was available at that time […] But now there’s such a proliferation of drugs that weren’t there when I was a young person, and these drugs are highly addictive: I’m talking about crystal meth and ecstasy.”
Phillip puts the blame on the provincial government for focusing their efforts more on megaprojects, such as the Olympics, than aboriginal issues, and the federal government for capping funding for First Nations at two per cent, despite the fact the aboriginal population is increasing at five to six times the national average.
But Phillip remains optimistic that governments and the public are slowly recognizing there is a major crisis with the current state of Canada’s aboriginal people. He believes this is thanks, in part, to Turpel-Lafond.
“We’ve never had somebody from the government’s side that’s really taken a genuine interest in this up until the representative for children and youth arrived on the scene. And I think that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has really made a difference in the short time that she’s held that position,” he says. “I think it’s only through that type of ongoing campaign to raise the awareness that we’re actually going to begin to develop a child poverty legislation and campaign.”
Any true indication of improvement in government services or public awareness for the struggles facing aboriginal children will likely be revealed in the follow up reports that the offices of the Representative and the Health Officer plan to release every two years.
Photo by Shawna Nelles