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Celebrating National Aboriginal Day

June 21, 2014 is National Aboriginal Day, a day for all Canadians to celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and exceptional contributions to Canada of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. It was first celebrated 18 years ago in 1996. Many communities mark this special day by hosting a wide range of events and festivals, music, dancing, drumming and other cultural activities.

This is a particularly important year for Aboriginal children. It’s the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a commitment governments have made to give the best interests of children high priority and ensure all children are treated equitably in all their actions. It’s also the year we’ll have a conclusion of the hearings before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which were initiated in 2007 on the basis of a human rights complaint filed jointly by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations, alleging inequitable funding by the federal government of on-reserve child welfare services.

I attended the last day of testimony before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on May 30th. I was struck by the fact that there were so few people bearing witness to this landmark case that day, and I concluded that a level of fatigue, and perhaps even a degree of indifference, had set in after so many months. It seemed as though the silent ante-room and the solemn hearing room should be bustling with activity, but that was not the case. We’ll have to wait even longer – until the Fall – for the Tribunal’s ruling and the next steps for these vulnerable children.

The celebration of both the 18th anniversary of National Aboriginal Day and the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child should serve as a call to action for all of us to make sure that the next generation of Aboriginal children don’t suffer the same indignities and denial of their fundamental rights as their predecessors. Our Aboriginal children deserve the same opportunity as all other children to enjoy the best conditions of childhood, to grow up in their homes and local communities wherever possible, and to reach their full potential as members of society who are proud of their culture and ancestral traditions. So what can we be doing to make a difference and express our points of view?

An immediate first step would be to follow the urgings of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to sign up to witness the case at and to attend the closing arguments in Ottawa (at 160 Elgin Street, 11th floor at 9:30 am each day – on October 20-24) or host a celebration for children to raise awareness of indigenous children's rights.

At the same time, we should be encouraging our governments and institutions, at all levels, to fulfill their commitments to indigenous children and to put the best interests and well-being of these children above all other considerations, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Such steps include: appointing a national Children’s Commissioner who could protect and promote the human rights of all children in matters of federal jurisdiction; ensuring fair and transparent funding mechanisms for service provision; and applying Jordan’s Principle, a ‘child first’ principle, to resolve jurisdictional disputes in the provision of basic services, including health, education and social services, for First Nations children.

It is time for all of us – on the occasion of these two benchmark anniversaries - to focus on the importance of providing Aboriginal children with every opportunity to lead healthy and culturally fulfilling lives in their homes and local communities, with access to appropriately funded supportive services. This can only be achieved, however, if Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals come together proactively, in a spirit of friendship, mutual respect and reconciliation, to collectively carve out a better future life path for all of our children.

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