First Nations advocate wants 'real action' after child welfare ruling
First Nations advocate Cindy Blackstock says she’s hopeful that a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found the government spent less on social services for on-reserve children will lead to “real action on the ground” and compensation for those affected.
“They are racially discriminating against kids,” Blackstock said of the federal government. “They have to make a decision over there whether they want (that) to continue.”
Blackstock told CTV’s Power Play that Canada should compensate all the children who have gone through the federal system. “We asked the tribunal to award the maximum amount under the act, which is a measly $20,000 (per person),” she said.
The decision comes nearly nine years after a complaint was filed by the Assembly of First Nations and The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, where Blackstock is executive director.
In its ruling, the tribunal found that funding formula used by the federal First Nations Child and Family Services Program (FNCFS) and related agreements with the provinces and territories have resulted in the denial of child welfare services on reserves.
The tribunal also found cases in which there was a financial incentive for the government to remove children living on reserves from their parents' care and place them in foster care, even though that's not the standard of care off reserves.
Blackstock said social services’ “first job is to keep families together by providing parenting supports and all the rest of it,” but that “those are almost non-existent in the federal funding formula, which meant that more children were going into child welfare care.”
"I can't even believe we had to take the federal government to court to get them to treat First Nations children fairly," Blackstock told CTV News Channel earlier in the day. "I'm hoping they'll use this opportunity to end the inequality for 163,000 children, not only in children's welfare, but in education, health and basics like water."
She said the federal government's own documents show the gap in funding for social services on reserves runs between 22 and 34 per cent, and that between 1989 and 2012, First Nations children spent more than 66 million nights in foster care.
Blackstock also cited a case in which a young girl suffered a heart attack and a Health Canada official said they would “absolutely not” fund a medical device that would have allowed her to go home for Christmas. Blackstock said a private citizen eventually paid for the device.
"I'm a taxpayer and when there are children in need, I want the answer from the federal government to be absolutely yes, not absolutely no," she said.
Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett said during a news conference hours after the decision was released, that "we know that we are going to have to significantly increase the dollars that are available for child welfare programs."
Bennett would not indicate exactly how much money would be committed to increasing social services for children on reserves, but she said it would be part of the budget process.
"This is about real number on which I will be judged," Bennett said. "Will we get more children out of foster care? Will we get better social outcomes for children?"
Justice minister and former regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, Jody Wilson-Raybould, said the federal government welcomes the human rights tribunal's decision "without question."
"For myself, and I think as Canadians and the values that we have, this is about equality. This is about and ensuring there is equal investment."
She said the government is committed to sitting down with First Nations leaders “at a very early time” to work out a new fiscal relationship and to address gaps in social services.
However, in response to a question from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair during afternoon question period, the Justice Minister did leave the door open a crack to a possible appeal.
“It’s a 180-page document,” Wilson-Reybould said. “Certainly we will take careful reading of it, but understand and recognize that there will likely not be any reason that we will seek judicial review.”
Mulcair called on the prime minister to commit “necessary funding in the budget so that we can begin to reverse this history of discrimination, colonialism and racism in Canadian institutions.”
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Dwight Dorey said he's "extremely happy" with the decision.
"It has been a long nine years for First Nations child welfare advocates who have waited patiently for the complaint to make its way through the justice system," Dorey said in a statement. "Communities and welfare agencies that have struggled in the past, can hopefully now look forward to receiving adequate resources to help protect our children."
Meanwhile, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the tribunal's ruling presents an immediate opportunity to fix the system.
He said he expects to see the funding gap addressed in the upcoming federal budget.
"In this great country there is no room for discrimination and racism," Bellegarde said during a news conference.
"To all the young children that have gone through the failed system, we want to ensure them they're not forgotten," he said.
The tribunal found that the First Nations Child and Family Services Program and other related provincial agreements intend to provide funding to ensure the safety and well-being of First Nations by supporting culturally appropriate child and family services.
"However, the evidence above indicates that Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is far from meeting these intended goals and, in fact, that First Nations are adversely impacted and, in some cases, denied adequate child welfare services by the application of the FNCFS Program and other funding methods," the decision reads.
Blackstock said she expects the Ottawa to take immediate action.
"The federal government has known for the last 16 years that these inequalities exist, that they're driving children into these very harmful situations, and more important they have the recommendations to act," she said.