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Ted McMeekin
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  Home / Weblog / Lt. Gov remarks to the Legislative Assembly  

Lt. Gov remarks to the Legislative Assembly

The Speaker (Hon. Michael A. Brown): May it please Your Honour, the Legislative Assembly of the province of Ontario, here assembled, has resolved to receive Your Honour's gracious address.

Hon. Mr. Bartleman: Premier McGuinty, Mr. Tory, Mr. Hampton, members of the Legislative Assembly, I should like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to provide the Legislature with a story of hope before everyone departs for the holiday season.

In addition to their normal constitutional and ceremonial duties, Lieutenant Governors traditionally embrace non-partisan causes that are important to the people of their provinces. In 2002, when I was sworn in, I selected mental health, anti-racism and the welfare of native youth as my priorities. I have been asked to speak to you today on what I have been doing for native youth.

I chose this issue as a result of my own experiences growing up as a member of a mixed white-aboriginal family in the Ontario of the 1940s and early 1950s. During these formative years, I witnessed first-hand the terrible poverty of native people, their lack of political rights and the racism to which they were subjected.

In the years that followed, I watched the condition of native people improve. They received the vote in 1960. A small but well-educated middle class has come into being. It was not, however, until I became Lieutenant Governor and began to travel to northern Ontario, in particular to the 50 communities of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation located in the vast northern two thirds of our province, that I saw how far we still had to go as a society.

Twenty-six of these communities have access to the outside world only by air. Poverty is deep and endemic. Unemployment is over 70%. A container of three bags of milk costs $13, a carton of juice $9 and a case of pop $29.

My first trip was a revelation. As my aircraft landed and taxied down the runway to park, another aircraft waited for clearance to take off. The distraught chief told me that the outgoing aircraft was carrying out to Thunder Bay for an autopsy the body of a 14-year-old girl who had killed herself. "Why?" I asked the chief. "She had no hope," he told me.

Last year, three young people, including a 12-year-old girl who hanged herself on a tree in front of her school just as her classmates arrived to start their day, killed themselves at Wunnumin Lake First Nation. "Why did they do it?" I asked the chief, teachers and parents. "Because they lacked hope," they said. 

Why do these children lack hope? They lack hope because they have few job prospects. They lack hope because they often do not know how to read and write. They lack hope because they live in poverty. They lack hope because they see on television the relative wealth of their fellow Canadians that they sense they will never share. They lack hope because they hear stories of racism from their friends and relatives who visit the outside world. They lack hope because they lack self-esteem. They lack hope because they believe that no one cares about them. They thus kill themselves at rates 10 times the national average, out of sight and out of mind of their fellow Ontarians.

Suicide in Canada is actually a phenomenon which affects middle-aged people, but among the native population it is the young people, often children.

I turned to Grand Chief Stan Beardy, who is with us today in the gallery, to seek his advice on what to do. I would ask the Grand Chief to stand.

The Grand Chief told me that we had to give the children hope and to show them that other Ontarians cared about them. Hope and caring, he emphasized, were the keys. We have worked closely together to achieve those objectives ever since.

Our starting point was our conviction that people and organizations of goodwill could make a difference. We found that we had to mobilize civil society. We found that all we had to do was to ask and Ontarians in the thousands were ready to help. And the government of Ontario and the Ontario Trillium Foundation stepped in to assist. We then had a marriage of civil society and government, a potent combination.

The Grand Chief and I agreed that the keys to giving hope were literacy and building bridges of understanding and mutual respect between native and non-native children.

I for one will never forgot the impact my encounter with books had on me when I was growing up in Muskoka in the 1940s. They transformed my life, allowed me to dream, and prepared me for a life other than that of an unskilled labourer, which would have otherwise been my fate.

I also never forgot the casual racism of that period. The lesson I learned was how important it was for people, especially children, to respect the cultures of others.

The Grand Chief and I decided to be highly focused and practical and to stay away from the issues of who was to blame, who should feel guilty and who had entitlements. 

In 2004, the library shelves were bare in the native schools in the NAN territory. We thus appealed to Ontarians to donate gently used books and hoped to collect 60,000; 1.2 million poured in. The OPP opened its detachments as book collection sites and the Canadian Forces offered a hangar at Downsview for storage. Volunteers sorted them down to 850,000 and, with the help of the Canadian Forces, Wasaya Airways and trucking companies such as Manitoulin Transport, we established libraries in schools not just in the north but in native communities that wanted them across Ontario, plus 26 of the 28 friendship centres of the province. Some time later, when the children of Attawapiskat were tested, their reading levels had gone up by 30% just by having books to read.

In our second initiative, with the support of the chiefs of the province, the Ontario Principals' Council, the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Toronto District School Board, we twinned 100 native schools with non-native schools in the province and all the schools of Nunavut with schools in Toronto. This was to promote cross-cultural awareness and to break down barriers between kids.


The results have been heart-warming. Just two weeks ago, for example, I hosted a get-together in my suite with the students of the Mary Jane Naveau Memorial School from Mattagami, who had come to Toronto and bunked down with students from the St. Francis De Sales elementary school in North York. The Toronto Catholic District School Board even held arctic games last spring with students from twinned schools in Toronto and Nunavut.

In our third initiative we established summer camps, run by FrontierCollege, in all fly-in communities in Ontario's north. Nine universities, four colleges, three teachers' federations, De Beers Canada, the Canadian Auto Workers Union, the Power Workers' Union and Ontario's power companies provided the bulk of the funding for the camps to run for five years. The Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat and the Ministries of Citizenship, Health Promotion, Children and Youth Services and Training, Colleges and Universities complemented their efforts.

The Canadian Tire Foundation stepped in with baseball gear, and Jan Industries of Montreal donated guitars to give sports and music components. Although not part of the summer camp program, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL Players' Association provided hockey gear to equip 25 teams, in collaboration with the Daniel Beardy Memorial Hockey Fund, to fight violence and suicide. The Grand Chief has told me that the impact of this donation on the troubled youth in his communities has been absolutely enormous, a perfect marriage, therefore, of civil society and government.

Last summer I visited the camps to see how the children were doing. In NorthSpiritLake, the principal pulled me aside to point out three youngsters who had just learned to read. The same thing happened to me in my visits to other communities.

Our fourth initiative is a young readers' club called Club Amick, run by the Southern Ontario Library Service. Banks, churches, the Trillium Foundation, but above all hundreds, if not thousands, of individual Ontarians have provided the money to give new children's books and a children's newspaper on a regular basis over the next five years to all 3,500 children, from kindergarten to grade 6, in every one of the fly-in communities. The teachers' federations and individual teachers' chapters and individual teachers have taken a major role in all of this. My dream is that some day the children in other native communities across Ontario's north will be able to become members of Club Amick, so that they too will develop a love of reading.

I am announcing today that I will be launching another province-wide book drive for the month of January. This time, in addition to topping up the libraries we established in 2004, I am hoping to provide surplus books to native communities elsewhere in the Canadian north, including Nunavut. The OPP has generously agreed to make its detachments across the province available as book collection sites once again. I thank Commissioner Fantino for his support. He's currently stuck in a traffic jam south of Orillia. The Canadian Forces, through the Land Force Central Area, will also make available a hangar once again at Downsview and will help to deliver the books. I thank Colonel Lawrence and Brigadier-General Thibault for their support.

The Governor-General has agreed to be honorary patron, and has indicated that she would like to work with me and the other Lieutenant Governors to introduce these initiatives to other parts of Canada. Alberta is already onside, and the Crees of northern Quebec have come to see me and said that they would like to twin their schools with schools in Ontario.

I would like to thank the press gallery here at Queen's Park and the media everywhere. Members of the print and broadcast media have travelled with the Grand Chief and me extensively. The media's compelling stories and powerful photos have done much to increase awareness of a region and a people who are often overlooked.

Finally, I would like to thank, through you, their elected representatives, the many thousands of Ontarians, for their support. Their acts of caring, generosity and, most importantly, their passion ensure that the native children and their families know that their fellow Ontarians care about them and want them to hope again. What a wonderful good-news story as we begin the holiday season.

Thank you very much for the privilege of being able to address you today.

His Honour was then pleased to retire.