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76th Annual Summer Conference, August 9–12, 2007

Closing Keynote

27th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

Summary by Salima Ebrahim

Couchiching’s closing address was by the Honorable James Bartleman, Ontario’s 27th Lieutenant Governor. It was a very personal and thoughtful talk, reflective of the individual. Mr. Bartleman is a member of the Mnjikaning First Nation and considers himself first and foremost a Canadian. His great love for the country and for his roots – both Aboriginal and Scottish, came out in his speech where he talked about the beauty of his identity, and spoke about his roots, which go back to 1748. Mr. Bartleman grew up in Port Carling and Muskoka was his hunting grounds.

Mr. Bartleman provided a keen look into his background and walked us through his childhood days which began in Raman, which was a desperate world slum back in those days – he says “you could tell you were at the reserve when you hit conditions of the third world.” He describes the people as walking walked around with an air of despondency; yet despite their conditions, they were proud Canadians. He mentions that though they didn’t have the vote, they looked at the future, and saw their children and grandchildren growing up and having their rights recognized. The irony is that even though Aboriginal people didn’t have the vote or rights, they still participated in the war of 1812. In fact, if it weren’t for the Aboriginal people, we would have been lost to the US – Aboriginal people played a key role in the war, and there was a high percentage of men from this reserve in particular, that fought. Now, the reserve is the largest employer of first nations people in this area and has emerged as real leaders. Mr. Batleman paused for a moment here and wonders what speakers at Couchiching in the past thought of the Aboriginal people they used to drive by – did they avert their eyes? He mentions Michael Ignatieff’s comment – “if we’re not careful we’re going to return to tribalization.”

His conversation then moved onto his role as Lieutenant Governor, and tells the audience that he came into office knowing he wanted to use it as a platform to advance nonpolitical, nonpartisan social causes. This is as a result of his background. Mr. Bartleman grew up in an era where people were racist at home and moralistic abroad. In a sense, him and his family were the strangers next door. His mother married his father at age 14 and in 1946 they ended up in Port Carling. Their first home was in a tent on vacant land by the village dump. In fact, the Port Carling dump constituted his first library, starting off with comic books! It’s there that he first learned how to read.

Their next move was to a summer cottage, where the temperatures would drop to same temperature outside. Everyone seemed to be poor, post depression. Their next move was to an old house that had no electricity, and the outhouse was built from materials from the village dump. He describes their situation as being at the bottom of the economic scale, social scale and racial scale, and ran up against the Ontario of that period where he and his siblings were described as dirty half breeds. This was very hurtful and where he developed passion for anti-racism. Due to this racism, his mother suffered from massive depression – thus his passion for mental issues. The one light in his life though was the library of Port Carling, where he found a world that was open to him. He asks “where does resilience in kids come from?” Literacy. Learning to read was the key to loving school, and once he started getting educated, all of a sudden, the people who called them names were friends. His next steps followed the trajectory of going to university, and then joining the Department of Foreign Affairs – but all through it all, never forgot the lessons of his early days.

It’s no surprise that when he became Lieutenant Governor, he adopted socially activist causes. He saw that in Ontario, though there were great changes, racism still remained at large. Now, Muslim and Arabs are at the top of the hate list, with Aboriginals second. He visited many kids in areas in Toronto where he heard that they were experiencing racism.

The talk then turned to his experience of being beaten up in South Africa, where he almost died. This brought on massive depression, and he went through his own down spiral, and realized the great stigma society still has around mental health issues. His next statement then moved to the conditions of the north, which he describes as going from the first to third world – because they are out of sight, they are out of mind. He describes it as having a third world in our own country. Conditions are appalling and he provided indicators to demonstrate his point:

18% of those in jail are Aboriginal.

27% of incarcerated women are Aboriginal.

Aboriginal people suffer from lower life expectancies, higher mortality rates, TB, diabetes (due to diets), are the poorest of all minority groups, their education levels are the lowest, they have a 22% unemployment compared to 7% across the country. They live in isolated and contaminated areas. Many are one parent families. 50% of northern communities on boiled water advisories for decades. Senior citizens are living in packing cases with tarps for roofs.

The impact of residential schools on the Aboriginal people are even more bleak, resulting in family violence and suicide, where 71% of women are abused, the suicide rates are 2-3 times higher than national average, and 6–7 times higher for young people. These high rates of suicide are directly attributable to the lack of hope, and state of terminal depressions where they see no future, a world which rejects them, are years behind other kids and lack equal opportunities.

Why is this the case? Because of poor governance – native, provincial, and federal levels bumping up against each other. We talk about developing governance models for Africa, but not here – unfortunately, it’s the kids that suffer the most.

The Lieutenant Governor’s talk then moves to the position he currently holds and says the greatest thing about being Lieutenant Governor is his ability to mobilize people to complement what government is and/or should be doing. Reading and education have become central to his plan. Why? It leads to self confidence. As a result, he started with libraries and made an appeal through the newswire and OPP, and received 1.2 million books which were then sorted down to 850,000, which the military and native airlines then flew into the northern reserves. The second time around, they ran another book drive focusing on children’s books which had same impact. The Young readers program raised one million dollars to fund a program where children from kindergarten to grade fiveget new books every three months. These kids love reading. When they parachute the books into the communities, the kids are waiting for them. The other upside? Children are now teaching their parents how to read.

Now what’s needed he says, is reconciliation. There is a gulf between native and non-natives. His next project revolved around twinning 100 native schools with 100 non-native schools to break down barriers between diverse groups using civil society. Then he came up with idea of mentoring, with universities helping aboriginal communities with a variety of services. The Lieutenant Governor’s dream is that we establish in Canada a type of youth corps which would go into northern communities; volunteers who would go in and help with literacy. And native communities will also put in resources. Need to have pride in own culture before you can have pride in being Canadian.

The Lieutenant Governor ends his speech by saying that and there is an enormous amount of goodwill in the population to tackle social justice causes. If you make progress with one marginalized group, progress can be made with other disadvantages groups. And this is needed. The word “stranger” or “different” should not be applicable. He mentioned that there are many other sectors of society that need help; disabled people are one. Three million mentally ill Canadians and people refuse to talk about the issues. Untold number of homelessness people out there.

Let’s rally civil society and do it ourselves.

End of talk

Questions from the Audience

1. What is Frontier College doing in the north?

Running literacy camps. Also running a camp in Alberta and Alberta is also twinning their schools.

2. Issue of governance – do you find that w/in the Aboriginal communities and government there is strong leadership in terms of what needs to be done? What are the major governance barriers?

Weaknesses in governance across the board – gaps for example in education. Bands get money but they don’t have expertise. Resources go to high needs. RE: native leaders, very responsible and very concerned. People don’t pay enough attention to conditions on reserves. Like US before human rights legislation with black people – separate but equal, where people don’t have the competence. Lack capacity, lack resources, lack expertise.

3. How can we engage politicians in solving Aboriginal issues as opposed to going to courts?

Ontario covered by treaties, but BC not. How to get issues on policy agenda? Will become increasingly on the agenda whether or not politicians want it, solely because of soc-econ data. Issues of Aboriginal Canadians will loom larger and larger. Let’s mobilize civil society to help people develop to their full capacity.

4. Is the future on the reserves?

At the moment, opportunities are off the reserve. But if you come off the reserve w/out an education, situation is often worse. But people are attached to their ancestral lands. So a lot of people don’t want to leave, and have legal treaty rights to stay where they are.

5. Greater receptivity for self government?

Provinces don’t have a lot of say. Important for media to keep covering these issues and see children as children. Need to have proactive policies.