Tribunal hears First Nations child welfare case: Does Ottawa discriminate?
Published Monday, February 25, 2013 8:42AM EST
Last Updated Monday, February 25, 2013 3:53PM EST
The living conditions of thousands of aboriginal children living on Canada’s reserves will be front and centre as a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case gets underway.
The issue at the core of the 14-week hearing -- which started Monday -- is federal funding of child welfare services on reserves.
The Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society allege that the federal government is discriminating against First Nations families and children by funding child welfare at amounts that are far less than what’s provided by provincial governments off of reserves.
Under the Indian Act, the federal government is responsible for funding health, education, police services and child welfare on reserves.
The AFN says children on reserves receive 22 per cent less funding for services than what’s provided by the provincial government for those who live off reserves.
Advocates say that under-funding is clear with a greater numbers of First Nations children place in foster care than there were at the height of the residential school era.
“This case is important for everyone concerned about human rights,” Alex Neve, of Amnesty International Canada, said in a statement. “The outcome will affect both the quality of vitally important services available to First Nations children as well as the integrity of human rights protection in Canada."
The federal government argues that providing funding is not a “service” as defined by the Canadian Human Rights Act.
The Human Rights Commission, however, has said the accepting that interpretation could make the government immune to discrimination complaints involving funding for a number of services in First Nations communities.
“The Government of Canada’s interpretation would undermine Canada’s human rights legislation, adversely impacting First Nations people in particular,” the commission wrote in a statement. “It would set a precedent for other on-reserve programs and services, such as police, health, and education.”
The tribunal follows years of legal wrangling.
The human rights complaints was filed against Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in 2007, but the case was dismisses in 2011 after the tribunal accepted the government’s argument that federal and provincial funding levels cannot be compared.
The federal courts overturned the decision in 2012.
The attorney general is appealing the Federal Court’s ruling that the tribunal hear the complaint. That appeal will be heard early next month.