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Tribunal rules federal government discriminated against First Nations children

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould, left, looks on as Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett speaks about the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal regarding discrimination against First Nations children in care during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
January 26, 2016 - 6:30 PM

OTTAWA - It will take a lot more than just lip service to put right the years of systemic discrimination and underfunding endured by First Nations children, an emotional group of indigenous advocates said Tuesday as their nine-year battle with Ottawa culminated in a landmark human rights decision.

Money — specifically, at least $200 million more a year in child welfare funding in order to close the fiscal gap — would be a good first start, said Cindy Blackstock, the social worker whose tireless crusade is at the heart of the ruling.

"Why did we have to bring the government of Canada to court to get them to treat First Nations children fairly — little kids?" Blackstock asked during an emotional news conference not far from Parliament Hill.

"Why would it ever be OK to give a child less than other children?"

The long-awaited ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that children in First Nations communities have long suffered adverse effects as a result of the way federal services are delivered on reserve. In some cases, government involvement has meant some children have been unfairly denied benefits.

The federal government failed to provide the same level of child welfare services that the provinces provided off-reserve, the tribunal noted. As a result, countless First Nations children have ended up in foster care, away from their families.

"By analogy, it is like adding support pillars to a house that has a weak foundation in an attempt to straighten and support the house," the tribunal said.

"At some point, the foundation needs to be fixed or, ultimately, the house will fall down."

Race and ethnic origin have also been factors, perpetuating the historical disadvantage and trauma suffered by Canada's Aboriginal Peoples as a result of the residential school system, the tribunal concluded.

Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, brought the original 2007 complaint to the tribunal, along with the Assembly of First Nations.

Federal funding for child welfare is between 22 and 38.5 per cent less than what has typically been provided at the provincial level, she added.

The ramifications of Tuesday's decision were etched on the face of Charlie Angus, the NDP's indigenous affairs critic and a northern Ontario MP who knows all too well the tragic legacy of underfunded child welfare in aboriginal communities.

"I was in one of my communities just recently and all the teachers kept leaving the classroom because we had a child on a suicide watch and there was no money," Angus said, fighting back tears.

"They fired the child welfare workers at the height of a suicide epidemic in James Bay — 89 kids, and they fired the child welfare workers to save both the province and the feds money. That's what it looks like on the ground."

The Liberal government's forthcoming federal budget, expected next month, needs to contain significant, tangible financial commitments in order to address the ongoing crisis flagged in the decision, he added.

The government will review the lengthy decision, but it's unlikely there will be any cause to seek judicial review of the ruling, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said Tuesday during question period.

Wilson-Raybould and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett stopped short of providing a dollar figure on how much the government is willing to provide to address the disparity.

"We know we are going to have to significantly increase the dollars that are available for child welfare programs," Bennett acknowledged.

Wilson-Raybould, a former B.C. regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said the tribunal's decision is "about equity."

"This is a good day," she said, citing the now-familiar Liberal commitment to reset the relationship between the federal government and Canada's Aboriginal Peoples.

"This is about ensuring that there is equal investment, and it is not just in terms of money, it is in terms of outcomes — that we create the space in this country for every child to be able to succeed," Wilson-Raybould said.

"This is the place and time."

Angus scoffed at the notion that the government doesn't have at least some sense of how much it needs to spend per year to end the disparity. And beyond that, there are other important considerations, such as damages, he added.

"What are they going to pay in compensation for the damage that they've done to this generation of young people?"

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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