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National Aboriginal Day

June 21 is National Aboriginal Day in Canada - a day to celebrate the rich cultural heritage and contributions of Aboriginal peoples including First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Many communities host special events and festivals, music, dancing, drumming, and other cultural activities.

It is sobering, then, that an art exhibit planned this week in Toronto to showcase the artistic talents of young people from Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario had to be postponed. The small community is grieving in the wake of suicides that have claimed a rash of young lives – a state of emergency affecting every member of the community. The rate of suicide among Aboriginal Canadians is several times higher than among the non-Aboriginal Canadian population – already a concern as the second leading cause of death among our teens.

Just like other Canadian children, Aboriginal young people have a right to safe and healthy homes, nutritious food, good education and protection from harm. They have the right to respect their culture and language. They have the right to life, survival, and opportunity. Canada agreed these rights are theirs when it committed to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (in 1991) and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (in 2010).

First Nations youth in Canada are on a journey. One day they will know they have rights, not just because we tell them so, but because they will live them and share equally in the best of what this country has to offer. It is hard to remember that as we grieve with the people of Neskantaga.

UNICEF Canada’s partner, the North-South Partnership for First Nations Children, is in Neskantaga working with their young people through art and music to find the strength in themselves and in their culture. The art exhibit will come to Toronto along with the young people of Neskantaga when the community is ready to move forward. UNICEF Canada was a founding member of the Partnership, and you can contribute to its work at www.northsouthpartnership.com.

There is more you can do for our Aboriginal youth on National Aboriginal Day.

Do you have 10 minutes? Learn about the rights they have to culture, community and opportunity by reading the Youth-Friendly Guide to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  It was produced by UNICEF in collaboration with Aboriginal adolescents and mentors from Canada and around the world.  Human rights are not supposed to be a distant concept, abstracted from people’s everyday lives. But often there is work to be done to bridge from these basic agreements about what human beings should have to live in dignity to actually create the conditions for doing so.

Take another 5 minutes: visit www.northsouthpartnership.com to see videos made by and about Neskantaga’s young people, and consider how their rights are present or missing.

Take 1 more minute: start a conversation by sharing the videos and the Youth-Friendly Declaration with someone in your life.

Canada sometimes feels like a very big country. But no child is too far.

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