This week, a historic ruling came from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, finally acknowl-edging systemic discriminatory funding practices towards First Nations children by Canada’s federal government.
The statistics are shocking. While the same standards of care apply for indigenous and non-indigenous children — First Nations are funded 22% less than those same services for non-First Nations.
To make matters worse, First Nations children are also overrepresented in Canadian child wel-fare statistics. Despite making up only 3% of the Canadian population, First Nations children make up to 40% of the child welfare cases in Canada.
This combination, overrepresentation plus chronic underfunding, has created a crisis for First Nations families in Canada.
Dr. Cindy Blackstock, the woman responsible for launching this case, travelled across Canada in 2015 sharing the work she, the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations launched in 2007 against the Canadian federal government.
In total, 72 days of evidence were presented to the tribunal in 2013 & 2014, arguing that there were significant known funding disparities between Canadian children and First Nations children on reserves across Canada.
But why and how, in a country as modern and socially conscious as Canada, would there be a discriminatory practice?
In fact these funding disparities for First Nations children go back to the beginning of child wel-fare allocated for First Nations children: Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.
One of the most powerful pieces of evidence shared with the tribunal was an early letter from notorious former Superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott – giving permission for Indian Agents to remove First Nations children from their families.
“The warrant had a second provision that allowed for the removal of First Nations children because they ‘were not properly cared for’,” Blackstock said. “This is the earliest document I know of for child welfare in Canada.”
Blackstock was present on Six Nations of the Grand River in 2015 as part of a national tour sharing the work of the Caring Society. During her presentation Blackstock said, “There are many words you can use to explain the over representation of First Nations children in care, but unavoidable is not one of them. We simply have to allow for good community responses that target those factors and we could have a lot more of our children home. But in order to do that we need to have an equitable opportunity to care for them.”
This is a sobering and sad reality. First Nations parents and children have been victimized by a discriminatory system since the days of Duncan Campbell Scott. That is nearly 100 years of fighting just for the equal opportunity to bring up our own children; a basic human right that many non-indigenous Canadians never have to fight for.
In 2007 the Canadian federal government, led by conservative PM Stephen Harper, issued a national apology to First Nations people acknowledging the wrongs of the Indian Residential School system.
Harper said, “The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”
Harper went on to read, in a packed parliament building and on national television before the en-tire country, “The legacy of Indian residential schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today.”
Oddly enough, 2007 was the same year the case against the Canadian federal government was submitted to the tribunal.
While Harper was standing in parliament apologizing to First Nations, Metis and Inuit people for the atrocities committed against their communities, families and children – his party was filing the first of eight different attempts to halt the Caring Society’s child welfare case from being heard at all.
Harper’s conservatives, leading the Canadian federal government, spent over $3 million dollars of taxpayers money over the course of six years to stop the Human Rights Tribunal from hearing the case, claiming it was unfair to compare federal funding to provincial funding and that any discrimination was not due to disparities in federal funding but rather came from the agencies providing services.
Both of those arguments were dismissed by the Tribunal and hearings began in 2013.
“For the first six years of this case the Canadian government tried to derail it with legal technicali-ties before the facts could ever be heard. And that I think itself is quite telling,” said Blackstock. “Because if I was accused of racially discriminating and had nothing to hide I’d want the hearing read; but that is not what we found with the government of Canada.”
Today, we can happily report that the tribunal was successful in proving known systemic funding disparities exist. And the recommendations of the tribunal and the Caring Society have been echoed by the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, UNICEF and Amnesty International – all taking a collective stand to demand the government of Canada end disparities for First Nations children.
In 2015, Harper’s was ousted from the Prime Ministers chair and Canada’s new prime minister, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has taken his seat — promising a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations communities.
Now is the time, and opportunity for Trudeau to be something of a hero in the new chapter of the story between Canada and First Nations. The Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations have asked for financial compensation from the federal government, and for all service needs for First Nations children to be met.
AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde spoke about the ruling and his hopes for the future in a press conference Tuesday afternoon saying, “Canada has an obligation to First Nations people, to rectify the wrong and remedy the situation. Remedy the need that is there and rectify the damage that has been done.”
“Fixing the system is doable…” Bellegarde said. “There is an opportunity for the federal crown to fix it.”