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COMMENTARY: Reconciliation requires action in the Yukon: Child Advocate

Annette King & Bengie Clethero
Annette King and Bengie Clethero are the Yukon’s child advocate and deputy child advocate. (Submitted)

Annette King & Bengie Clethero

Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office

September 30, 2021 is the first official National Day of Recognition for Truth and Reconciliation. It is a day of remembrance and a time to galvanize action in the ongoing battle for young people to have their rights respected. As unmarked graves of children who never returned from residential school continue to be churned up across the country, we are faced with the visceral consequences of what happens when children’s rights are violated.

For the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office, these consequences are prevalent throughout our work. In aiming to amplify the voices of young people, we consistently witness the devaluing and harming of children, and far too often in the institutions that claim to support them. There needs to be support for parents to build competencies, skills and experiences to compensate their own rights being ignored as children. Although there are countless examples of brilliant strength and resilience, the impacts of intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schools are undeniable, pervasive, and must be addressed by the government. But how can a government founded on such a violent history truly engage in reconciliation? How can we as a nation ask Indigenous peoples to reconcile when there are communities without clean water, clear evidence of systemic racism in policing and healthcare, a suicide epidemic that recently prompted three separate First Nations to declare states of emergency, and many Canadians still telling Indigenous people to “just get over it?” Why did it take the finding of little tiny bones in unmarked graves, without coffins, to awaken Canadians to the truth?

In 1989, the United Nations recognized the importance of children as rights holders with unique development and a need for protections in policy. They did this by creating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legally-binding international agreement outlining 54 articles that dictate how governments should safeguard children’s rights. Canada signed on in 1991, signifying its pledge to children’s rights and committing to the duty of considering children in all policy decisions. We wonder if this commitment echoed in the halls and classrooms of the Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, which wouldn’t shut its doors until five years later in 1996. We wonder how it holds up today when nationally foster care systems have 52% Indigenous children despite them making up just 8% of Canadian children overall.

Healing from the harm of residential schools is the foundation for Indigenous children to thrive in the future. All children have a right to survive and thrive. They have a right to be safe from abuse and discrimination. Children have a right to healing and recovery when they have been harmed. Actions taken today must lead to healing for individuals, families and communities to get back to when children were truly thriving with cultural strength and tradition before residential schools. First Nations partnerships must be more than political gameplay. Cultural revitalization must be more than a symbolic token. As a country we need to centre Indigenous wisdom and recognize Indigenous peoples, leaders, language, and values as foundational guides to redefining our country.

The 94 calls to action to address the truth and move toward reconciliation were released in 2015. The Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates was at the closing ceremony where we presented a Declaration of Reconciliation with a commitment to uphold children’s rights with special regard for Indigenous children and youth. If Canadians are serious about “reconciliation,” we must provide the necessary supports to families and extended families to safely care for their own children. In our work, we regularly see the burden of residential school on the backs of grandparents, aunties, cousins taking care of traumatized children with inadequate support. There needs to be investment for family healing and opportunities for emotional growth. Every Canadian can commit to ensuring children are prioritized before rights violations occur. Governments can acknowledge and uphold their duty to meet their obligation to implement, promote and protect children’s rights. This would show up in policy development, legislation, budgeting, and political agendas. The short term and long term impacts on children must be considered in all actions, at all levels of decision-making by policymakers, politicians, and leaders. Imagine if a child rights lens had been considered in the planning stages for residential schools!

Canada ratified children’s rights 30 years ago. The time for apologies is over. Now is a time for action.

The Child & Youth Advocate Office is an independent office of the Legislative Assembly committed to upholding the rights and amplifying the views of children and youth. The operations of the office are guided by the Child and Youth Advocate Act. Annette King is the appointed Child and Youth Advocate and Bengie Clethero is the Deputy Child and Youth Advocate.