An advocate for First Nations child welfare says the tragic death last month of six-year-old Lee Bonneau in Saskatchewan is shining a harsh light on the poor state of social services on Canadian reserves.

Bonneau died of serious head injuries on Aug. 21 after being found beaten in a wooded area on the Kahkewistahaw First Nation, about 150 kilometres east of Regina.

The child believed responsible for Bonneau’s death is under the age of 12 and is too young to be charged under Canada’s Criminal Code. Police say he was known to them and to local social services workers. He has been placed under the custody of the province’s Ministry of Social Services and will receive treatment, officials said Tuesday.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, says Bonneau’s death is tragic and shocking but the situation has really arisen out of the inequalities in children’s services on reserves. She says incidents of children killing other children are rare in First Nations communities, just as they’re rare in the rest of Canada too.

“But what there’s not in these communities is access to services to help children like this at the very early stages,” she told CTV’s Canada AM from Ottawa Thursday.

Blackstock says reserve communities in Canada’s North have long had a pitiful lack of the social programs that are commonplace across the rest of Canada.

“And that’s because for the last 120 years that the federal government has been involved in child welfare on reserves, it has consistently underfunded those services,” she said.

In order for things to change, she says, First Nations communities need to have equitable access to mental health services, to substance misuse services, and to child welfare systems.

The living conditions on reserves also need to change because they are endangering the health and safety of children as well, Blackstock adds. Aboriginal children accounted for more than half of the cases of child deaths and more than 80 per cent of critical injuries in Saskatchewan last year. Many of those deaths and accidents are preventable but Blackstock says they stem from a lack of safety programs.

“So when we look at basics like playgrounds, there are very few (First Nation) communities that actually have safe playgrounds for children,” she says.

There’s also poor access to basic safety equipment such as snowmobile and bike helmets, she says, and underfunding of safety education programs. Even the housing on First Nations communities poses safety hazards because of poor construction, toxic mould levels, or the lack of electricity and use of wood-burning stoves, Blackstock says.

“This is in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world,” she said. “So all of those are things we could do something about. All those things are housing issues that impact on the health and wellbeing of kids.”

Blackstock believes that what’s needed to turn the situation around is for First Nations communities to embrace responsibility for themselves as well as for governments to offer communities equitable access to services. But she’s not confident that current funding patterns are going to change.

“I certainly hope so,” Blackstock said. “But what I’ve seen is a long pattern of foot-dragging from the respective levels of governments, where they sort of pat themselves on the back for things they do, instead of really applying themselves to doing what’s really necessary for children.”