First Nations child advocates ramp up pressure on government ahead of budget
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde listens to Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Caring Society respond to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday February 23, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, February 23, 2017 5:38PM EST
OTTAWA -- The Liberal government must end discriminatory practices and increase funding for First Nations child welfare services in the upcoming federal budget, prominent First Nations advocates said Thursday as they marked 10 years since filing a human rights complaint on the issue.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said the government has failed to comply with landmark findings from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
"The very lives of those kids are on the line," Blackstock said at a news conference, pointing to two compliance orders issued by the tribunal following its original findings last year.
"There is no excuse for this type of incompetence within the government when it comes to the well-being of 163,000 children ... I expect far better, we all expect far better and God help us; let's do it for these kids in Canada's 150th birthday."
In January 2016, the quasi-judicial tribunal found the federal government discriminates against First Nations children and families in the delivery of services on reserve.
Filing the original human rights challenge was an extraordinary step, Bellegarde said Thursday, noting he wished he could celebrate after 10 years.
Instead, he said programs currently available through provincial agencies remain out of reach for First Nations including suicide prevention and supports.
"We've been fighting this battle for a long time," Bellegarde said.
"Think about 10 years in a child's eyes. It is really an eternity."
It is simply not acceptable so many children are removed from their homes because of poverty, Bellegarde added, noting that a system that rewards the apprehension of children must be changed because that is when money flows to agencies.
Bellegarde and Blackstock also noted the Liberal government backed an NDP motion in November in the House of Commons calling for an immediate $155 million spending increase and a funding plan for future years.
"The minister of indigenous and northern affairs told us that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is not the court of law," NDP indigenous affairs critic Romeo Saganash said during question period on Thursday.
"All indigenous children have the right to a healthy childhood, so when will the government do the right thing and stop discriminating against First Nation children?"
Speaking outside the Commons, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett insisted the government is applying "every ounce of political muscle" to reform the child welfare system.
"At the moment, the problem has been that we as the federal government pay and the provinces and territories deliver," she said. "I want to be accountable for the results, and that means we have to change the system."
The minister has appointed a special representative -- 2011 Liberal candidate and Lakehead University professor Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux -- to lead national discussions on the reform of First Nations child welfare services.
Bennett's officials argue that government funding is being phased in over time deliberately, as agencies deal with the challenges of hiring and retaining staff, as well as the need for time to roll out new programs.
"I think that what we need to do is work at these trilateral tables with the provinces and territories so that we have direct ways of getting money for the prevention so that the kids stay in their families and in their communities," Bennett said.
The federal government has presented no evidence that First Nations agencies are somehow all incapable of addressing and implementing child welfare services, Blackstock argues.