Leaders predict more tragic deaths unless governments fix aboriginal poverty

By STEVE LAMBERT
Sunday, August 19, 2007

WINNIPEG (CP) - There will be more deaths like the recent drowning of a boy on a Manitoba reserve by three youngsters unless something is done about the social ills rampant on many native reserves, the head of an aboriginal child welfare agency warns.

"We allow kids to grow up in extreme poverty," says Elsie Flett, head of the First Nations of Southern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority. "Why are we then surprised when these kids become violent? Society has really been very violent towards them."

The agency is one of four authorities in Manitoba assigned to protect children at risk of abuse or neglect. It covers a large area including the Pauingassi First Nation, 300 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, where Adam Keeper, 6, died on Aug. 7.

"Who is interviewing Stephen Harper and his government?" Flett asked in an interview. "Who is saying, ’What are you doing about Pauingassi’?"

RCMP have said Keeper, who could not swim, was bullied into taking off his clothes and pushed into a lake by three boys, who are 7, 8 and 9 years old. His body was found hours later.

Aboriginal leaders have pointed to Pauingassi’s high rate of alcoholism, broken families, poor housing and grinding poverty as the root of violence in the community. Flett is prevented by law from revealing details about the drowning, which her agency is investigating, but news reports have suggested one of the boys involved suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and another has been raised by his grandparents while his siblings have been in foster care.

Flett points to the 1996 report from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which warned that high rates of crime, suicide, addiction and violence will plague native communities until governments address native poverty.

"We have kids that go hungry. Up in Pauingassi ... food is just not affordable. Do we care about that? Do we do anything about that?"

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, who took over the portfolio as part of last week’s federal cabinet shuffle, was unavailable to comment. His predecessor, Jim Prentice, had promised that Ottawa would take concrete steps to improve living conditions on reserves.

The numbers of children coming through Flett’s agency and other native-run bodies is startling. Aboriginals make up 15 per cent of Manitoba’s population, yet account for 70 per cent of the province’s 7,000 children in the child-welfare system.

What remains unclear about Keeper’s death is how long the four boys, all under 10, were left to wander around without adult supervision.

Keeper is believed to have drowned sometime in the late afternoon. His father found his body after a community search was organized in the evening.

It’s not unusual for young children to be left to their own devices, said Pauingassi Chief Harold Crow.

"Kids are kids. Kids have the freedom to move around," he said.

"The community is a remote area and we have all kinds of surrounding bush and the lake, and I guess (Keeper and the other boys) were far out into the covered area."

Children have died or been injured while on their own on other reserves. Last January, a five-year-old boy from the Cumberland House First Nation in northeastern Saskatchewan was killed by a pack of dogs near his home. His body was found lying on the road sometime later.

Last November, a five-year-old boy died in a similar dog attack on the North Tallcree reserve in northern Alberta. His body was also found on the road.

Last September, an 11-year-old girl from the Chemawawin Cree Nation in central Manitoba was severely burned when she and some other kids were engaged in a dangerous game involving bug spray and a lighter.

Child protection laws vary from province to province. Manitoba requires adult supervision for any child under 12.

Flett is quick to point out that poor parenting is not exclusive to reserves, but adds that life in a disadvantage, remote community can be a strain for the best of parents.

"If you’re a single parent ... and you’re living in a community like Pauingassi where there is no bus, there is no taxi, doing your laundry and getting groceries becomes a major, major issue," she said.

"How do you then say to that mom, ’You should know where every single one of your kids is all the time’?"

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