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First Nation fathers: hidden in plain sight

More than 200 people packed into the Yukon Arts Centre Tuesday to look directly at an issue that many Canadian journalists and academics are calling one of the country's most detrimental blind spots.

More than 200 people packed into the Yukon Arts Centre Tuesday to look directly at an issue that many Canadian journalists and academics are calling one of the country’s most detrimental blind spots.

CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti hosted this special episode of her radio show, The Current: “Fathers without fathers: aboriginal men in Canada.”

Beginning each choreographed cue with a spew of startling statistics, Tremonti first spoke with an entirely nonaboriginal panel: Jessica Ball, a professor with the University of Victoria’s School of Child and Youth Care, is the first person to specifically study aboriginal men in Canada, and Geoff Leo, a CBC reporter in Regina who has made the documentary Blind Spot: What Happened to Canada’s Aboriginal Fathers.

The mix of aboriginal and nonaboriginal Yukoners in the audience quietly listened to Tremonti as she reamed off the numbers: one in five or 20 per cent of aboriginal women in Canada are single moms and the percentage of aboriginal children raised by a single mother is double that of nonaboriginal children.

They stayed quiet as Leo recounted experiences of making his documentary, with help of clips of the men he spoke with who were participants in an all-fathers group in a Saskatchewan prison.

Two out of every three aboriginal kids in Canada are raised without a father, he said.

Ball added there are eight times more adolescent pregnancies in Canada’s aboriginal population than in the nonaboriginal population.

And there is a definite correlation between having a positively involved father and being more successful in terms of graduation rates, for example, both Leo and Ball agreed.

The two also agreed that through all their work one thing that has resonated most strongly is the yearning aboriginal fathers expressed for things to change.

Poverty, substance abuse and not having a positive example to learn from are all barriers standing in their way, Ball said.

Tremonti then invited an entirely aboriginal panel to the stage. Joe Migwans helps to run the traditional parenting program at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse, and Stan Tu’inukuafe co-founded a program through the John Howard Society in Saskatoon called Str8-Up, which helps aboriginal youth leave gang life.

“The elders noticed the problem a long time ago,” said Migwans, recounting the first time he attended the traditional parenting course as a young father himself. The program began in the early 1990s for mothers, until the elders started asking where the men were, Migwans said.

Unfortunately, Yukon First Nations missed the opportunity to make a bigger impact, he said. Back then, there were more elders who were raised traditionally, before residential school, who could have imparted their teachings.

For the final piece of the show, the microphone was extended to the audience. And they were ready.

Nearly 10 people from the audience participated, all but one were aboriginal.

“Every one of our First Nation ancestors was fatherless when they went through residential school,” said Stephen Reid, a young father from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. ” We are having this discussion not because of Anna Maria Tremonti but because we are aware of it.”

“I think we’ve reached a crisis point as First Nation people,” said Roseanna Goodman. “It’s taken generations to get here and it will take generations to get out.”

With the audience’s instigation, the panel’s discussion turned to government funding and oppressive legislation, like harsher prison sentencing that largely perpetuates negative cycles in marginalized populations.

More support for aboriginal parenting needs to be given from the federal government, said Ball.

She pointed out that during his June 2008 apology, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged residential schools effectively stopped the teaching of any family and parenting skills in aboriginal communities.

“Where’s the followup?” she asked to applause and cheers from the audience.

Kevin Barr, MLA for Mount Lorne-Southern Lakes, was put on the spot to respond on the territory’s political will.

“As politicians we have to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” he said. “We have to speak out and help each other, not point fingers, no matter what race you come from.”

The last comment of the night came from Sandra Johnson.

“When you oppress someone long enough, they begin oppressing themselves,” she said. “We all have something to learn from each another and up to this point, Canadians have been deprived of what First Nation people can offer.”

This episode of The Current will air Thursday. Leo’s documentary will air on CBC television on Saturday.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at