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Natives must take responsibility

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UNICEF's report on the health of Canada's aboriginal children, the Canadian Supplement on the State of the World's Children, points fingers of blame in all the politically correct directions -- the federal government, the lack of funding, the crowded housing, the colonial legacy, the residential schools, and so on.

In his foreword, UNICEF President and CEO Nigel Fisher asks what kind of a Canada we want: "As a country, do we accept that only half of our aboriginal children will complete high school?... Is the Canada we want a country where we resist funding the 22 per cent gap in child welfare services between First Nations and Canadian children on average, funding that could strengthen families instead of removing children from them? Do we want to live in a country where the result of that disparity is that more aboriginal children are in government care today than during the peak years of the residential schooling era?"

Nice rhetorical flourishes, but same old platitudinous answer. Throw more money at the problem. The reason it doesn't work is that one factor has been left out of the equation -- personal responsibility on the part of the people to whom the money is going. Adding 22 per cent more funding is not going to keep children out of foster care or convince them to finish high school. Better parenting will do that.

And better parenting is a conscious choice, regardless of whether a parent went to residential school.

Pretending more money is the answer is like saying aboriginal people are not thinking human beings who can look at their circumstances, rise above the ugly stuff and decide they're going to do things differently with their kids.

It's the kind of decision that, over the centuries, millions of people in sordid situations have made for their children, regardless of race, creed or culture.

The report says that on one Manitoba reserve, between 55 and 101 babies per 1,000 are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. FAS makes no racial distinctions. You can be black, white, red or purple polka-dot, but if you drink while pregnant, your baby is going to suffer. Instead of dithering behind what is usually referred to as "culturally appropriate" communication, try plain language.

Don't drink while you're pregnant. If you need help to stop drinking, Health Canada's fetal alcohol spectrum disorder program is there for "children from age zero to six, and women of child-bearing age" to "reduce the number of babies born with FASD" and "support children who are diagnosed with FASD and their families."

The UNICEF report also wrings its collective hands over the 20 per cent lower immunization rates for children on reserves than for children in the rest of Canada: "First Nations children subsequently suffer from higher rates of vaccine-preventable diseases . . . We must understand the health status of First Nations children within the broader context of the socio-economic conditions they face. We must also be aware of the inherent inequality in the Canadian governance structure that places First Nations children and families at a disadvantage." Actually, it's simpler than that. When the immunization clinic comes to your community, take your child to be vaccinated. Health Canada has a "targeted immunization strategy" aimed at "First Nations children under the age of six living on-reserve or in Inuit communities." But all the programs in the world aren't going to make a bit of difference if parents don't bring their children to the immunization clinics.

The report says: "Canada's long history of European colonization is at the root of the social inequalities and poor health that persist among aboriginal peoples today." Yet Health Canada's website lists everything from an aboriginal Head Start on-reserve program, to prevention programs for tuberculosis and blood-borne diseases to prenatal nutrition programs, to maternal and child health initiatives. And why is "colonization" to blame for poor health among aboriginals, when other Canadians are told that their poor health is a direct result of their own lifestyle choices and it's up to them to do something about it?

The high rates of tuberculosis in First Nations communities are usually blamed on the crowded, unsanitary housing conditions. In a 2002-03 national survey, 40 per cent of people in band housing said they had mildew or mould in their homes.

Nobody should have to live like that. So how about teaching people to repair and build their own houses instead of waiting for the government to do it? Or by bringing in Habitat for Humanity, which has partnered with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. since 2007, to do just that? Last month, construction of the first on-reserve Habitat home got underway at Alderville First Nation in Ontario.

Some parts of the report do talk about the need for community-based initiatives, but there is far too much deflecting of responsibility elsewhere.

I'm convinced the kind of Canada most Canadians want is one which boasts many more Aldervilles and less futile talk about colonization. History can't be undone, but it can be overcome when individuals take responsibility for themselves and decide to work toward something better.

Naomi Lakrtiz is a columnist with the Calgary Herald.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2009 A10

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