Let's build a better world for Native youth

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      Politicians like to boast about where Vancouver stands in annual rankings of cities. But no matter how well we do in these evaluations, we'll always carry the stigma of the missing women.

      This is the city in which dozens of sex-trade workers from the Downtown Eastside were butchered over two decades. The police board refused to offer a reward for many years. The Vancouver police department ignored the expertise of one officer, Kim Rossmo, even though he had a PhD in this area.

      Most of the social-service agencies and activists in the Downtown Eastside also failed to make enough noise. Most of us in the media neglected to pursue this issue with any vigour. Because of our collective indifference, there are a great many more motherless children in our city. Many are aboriginal because more than a third of the missing women were Native. It is our city's greatest shame.

      In 2005, Kwantlen University College researchers reported the results of interviews with 200 aboriginal youth in Vancouver. A stunning 62 percent stated that they had been detained by police.

      "One recurring theme revolved around the limited availability of facilities and personnel–youth complained about the closing of the [Vancouver Aboriginal] Friendship Centre at what they thought to be an unreasonably early hour, and the fact that the Broadway Resource Centre is not open on weekends," the researchers reported. "The upshot of this, at least in the case of the Friendship Centre, is that at a certain point in the evening, all the youth who have been using the Centre, are moved out on the street with nothing to do."

      They added that "every effort" should be made to provide access to alternatives to hanging out on the streets of Vancouver. The creaky old gymnasium at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre (1607 East Hastings Street) is often used for community meetings, which means it's unavailable for kids.

      Fortunately, the Urban Native Youth Association, which has an office across the street, has proposed a sensible solution: a new 50,000-square-foot Native Youth Centre (scaled down from its original 65,000 square feet). There would be a gymnasium, a community kitchen, a child-care centre, an alternate school, a computer lab, a resource centre, an arts-and-culture studio, a drop-in centre, and space for a sweat lodge and spiritual practice. Operating money would come out of an endowment built into the fundraising budget.

      UNYA is the leading First Nations youth-services organization. It provides a safe house, residential facilities, mentoring programs, and two alternate schools in partnership with the Vancouver school board. UNYA's board of directors, staff, and capital-campaign-committee members include some of the most impressive young people you'll ever encounter, including Melanie Mark, Ginger Gosnell, hip-hop artist Curtis Clearsky, and Shannon Johnny.

      UNYA received a big boost when Petro-Canada donated a $1.2-million parcel of land. The City promised to make available the adjacent land, which houses UNYA's office. CIBC donated $200,000. The F.K. Morrow Foundation, the McLean Foundation, Larry McFarland Architects, Holborn Group, and Concord Pacific have all contributed money. Liberal MP Stephen Owen was a strong supporter as the minister of western economic diversification. UNYA now has commitments of $6 million.

      The Ministry of Children and Family Development has identified the area around the proposed Native Youth Centre as one of four "hubs" for serving at-risk youth. Despite this, Finance Minister Carole Taylor did not provide funding this year.

      If the centre obtains $11 million from the province and another $17 million in federal funding, the capital-campaign committee thinks it can raise $12 million on its own.

      Billions are being spent on the Olympics and related megaprojects. But very little capital spending has trickled down to urban aboriginal people. The Straight will ensure that international media learn about this if nothing changes by 2010.

      The only way the Native Youth Centre will be built is with the help of community champions. Leaders such as Stephen Owen, Vancouver park commissioner Marty Zlotnik, dragon-boat-race founder Milton Wong, and Alcan's Richard Prokopenko could exert their influence to make this happen.

      Owen understands aboriginal issues. Zlotnik is a fundraiser extra­ordinaire who ran for the park board to focus more attention on at-risk youth. Wong, a financier, has spent much of his life promoting a more inclusive city. In recent years, Alcan has been one of the country's most progressive corporations in its dealings with First Nations.

      Imagine what a committee like this could accomplish. They could contact the premier and the finance minister, and persuade some of our wealthiest residents–including the Ketchum family, the Bentley family, the Sauder family, the Segal family, the Khosrowshahi family, Peter Brown, Jim Pattison, and others–to open up their wallets for the kids.

      Many B.C. fortunes have been made extracting natural resources, which were taken from aboriginal people without their consent. Why not return a small part of it to Native kids?

      Major music-industry figures–such as Calvin Ayre, Bruce Allen, Sam Feldman, or Terry McBride–could organize a fundraising concert for the Native Youth Centre. If the promoters put Curtis Clearsky on stage, Native kids would go berserk.

      In a single documentary, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore was able to turn around world opinion on global warming. Maybe one of our talented video producers–such as David Paperny or Claudia Ferris–could create an emotionally charged fundraising video about the centre, which could influence politicians.

      On National Aboriginal Day (June 21), let's make a commitment to take action rather than merely talk about solutions. Let's build the Native Youth Centre in Vancouver, and let's not wait for Stephen Harper to come to the table. Only then will we begin to erase our city's greatest shame and convince these kids that we genuinely give a damn about them.