Native reality brought to Toronto students

  • December 20, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - Native teens living in remote northern communities are not provided the same opportunities as southern Canadian teens, said the former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.  

James Bartleman gave the keynote address, describing the reality of native people in northern Ontario, at the fourth annual Social Justice Symposium Our Home And Native Land: Native Rights In Canada Dec. 14 at the University of St. Michael’s College.

About 250 Catholic secondary school students attended the day-long symposium organized by teachers and students from Brebeuf College School’s social justice committee. 

Low literacy rates, mental and physical health problems and suicide were among the most pressing problems that aboriginal youth face, said Bartleman.

Bartleman, an aboriginal person himself, said he witnessed “Canada’s Third World”  during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor.

Canada’s northern native people live in overcrowded, sub-par housing conditions with boil water advisories, he said.

“There is an epidemic of youth suicide,” said Bartleman. “Kids hit the age of 13 and they form suicide pacts and they start to kill themselves. One after the other they hang themselves.”

To help curb these problems as Lieutenant Governor, Bartleman opened 36 mental wellness summer camps with volunteer counsellors who fly up to help run them.

Bartleman twinned native schools as far north as Nunavut with Toronto schools. He thanked the Toronto Catholic District  School Board for holding a Winter Games, inviting native teens down south to participate.

“It’s important that there are links between native people and non-native people,” he said.

He also helped set up libraries in northern aboriginal communities. The Canadian military delivered between $20-$30 million worth of books without a single cent paid by the taxpayer, said Bartleman.

Last year, $1.2 million was raised to provide all aboriginal students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 with one new good quality book every four months.    

“The key to their future is books, reading and another narrative,” said Bartleman.   

As a thank you, Jason Cheng, president of the Brebeuf social justice committee, presented Bartleman with a $1,000 cheque for Club Amick, a reading club Bartleman founded for native children.

Cheng hopes the student participants will take action following the symposium to support some of Bartleman’s initiatives.

“Native rights relate to everyone here,” said the Grade 12 student. “It’s an issue that’s big, but people tend to ignore.”

Instead of putting all the spotlight on the developing world outside of Canada, Brebeuf teacher and symposium co-organizer Michael Da Costa hoped the day would raise awareness about the need to take care of people with difficult lives inside Canada. 

Da Costa said Catholics can learn from the example of one of the Canadian Martyrs, the school’s patron saint, St. Jean de Brebeuf. The French-born Jesuit missionary and martyr lived among the Huron nation for more than 15 years before being captured and tortured to death by an opposing clan.

“Brebeuf took care of native peoples, so what are we doing in the year 2007 for native peoples?”

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