January 26, 2016 saw a landmark decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It came down in favour of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada (Caring Society), who argued that the federal government discriminated against First Nations children in its funding of child and family services in First Nations communities. The decision has far-reaching implications, arguably as significant as Supreme Court decisions that have favoured First Nations in land custody and constitutional rights suits.
The human rights complaint was launched in 2007. The Harper government obfuscated (via delays in sharing key documents) and actually tried to stop the complaint going forward (saying that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction), plus spied on and harassed the Caring Society’s Executive Director, Dr. Cindy Blackstock. She was able to win a separate Human Rights Tribunal case for the latter action and received $20,000 in damages, which she donated to children’s charities.
The complaint was bolstered by everything from statements by federal bureaucrats admitting the funding shortfall, to reports by the Auditor General that noted the lack of parity in funding. Indeed, recommendations to improve services for children and families are among the first calls to action included in the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
What does it mean?
Child and family services are those operations that intervene in child abuse situations. They are offered both by the provinces for off-reserve families and in many cases in on-reserve situations, as well as some105 mandated or delegated First Nations agencies across Canada and Quebec.
But, as the AFN and the Caring Society argued, federal funds to provinces for services off reserve are often 38 per cent higher than what the federal government gives to First Nations. This allows off-reserve families to receive more supports and prevention services. The impact is a disproportionate number of First Nations children being removed from their families and taken into the foster care system, the number far higher than the total that suffered through the residential school system at its height. Often the foster homes are away from the child’s family and community, resulting in extreme cultural and personal alienation, which all too frequently leads to addictions and mental trauma. Children in care suffer far higher school drop-out rates, greater involvement with the criminal justice system and longer term health problems. Cindy Blackstock has pointed to these problems as contributing to the high number of vulnerable girls and women who go missing or murdered.
What else is needed?
But Blackstock and the AFN also point out that equity in funding for child and family services has to be matched with equity in funding for all programs “on reserve,” including education, health, housing and infrastructure to ensure safe drinking water. The horrors in Attawapiskat, from the falling down school building to widespread substance misuse, made headlines a few years ago and this week saw the murders in La Loche, Saskatchewan, committed by a youth who went untreated for apparent depression. Underfunding of needed health and social services contributes massively to these tragedies
What will the government do?
AFN Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde said he is optimistic that the Trudeau government is listening. He pointed to Trudeau’s meetings with the national Chiefs, removal of the very old 2 per cent funding cap for First Nations programs, the commitment to an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and Trudeau’s commitment to implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Indeed, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said they welcomed the Tribunal’s decision, committed to more funding in the upcoming federal budget, and to overhauling the child and family service framework for First Nations.
But to genuinely improve the quality of life for First Nations children, it will be essential to not only focus narrowly on child and family services, since these kick in only once a family is in distress. All the other services mentioned above—housing, education, health, etc.—not to mention robust economic development (which hinges on settling and honouring treaties and inherent rights) need to be addressed. And complying with First Nations’ views on pipeline expansion and other resource extraction will also contribute to the well-being of children and families. At this point, it is likely that the Liberals will be unable to address all these needs while continuing to allow tarsands expansion and while spending money on the military instead of First Nations.
What should we do?
The Caring Society shares these concerns and has an excellent website where you can see the Society’s tracking of the government’s responses. The next three weeks are to be used to design a process to oversee the implementation of the Tribunal’s decision.
*Watch and see what the government does in the upcoming budget to not only respect the Tribunal decision, but to ensure adequate funding for the range of services needed by children and families in First Nations communities.
*You can support any and all actions undertaken by First Nations to assert their inherent rights.
*Press the NDP to hold the Liberals accountable because we cannot expect the Official Opposition—the party of Harper that tried so hard to suppress this complaint—to do so.
Both the Caring Society and the AFN said they will go to court again if the government does not respect the Tribunal decision and fix the current child and family service system, as recommended by the Tribunal and Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They will not be letting up. Neither should we.