CHRT decision finds on-reserve children treated unfairly in terms of child welfare services
- Fraser Needham | January 28, 2016
In a groundbreaking ruling, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled Ottawa discriminates against First Nations children living on-reserve when it comes to child welfare services.
The decision comes roughly nine years after the First Nations and Family Caring Society and Assembly of First Nations launched the complaint against the federal government.
First Nations groups have long argued a lower level of support by Ottawa for child welfare services on-reserve, as compared to what children living off-reserve receive from provincial governments, has resulted in many First Nations children needlessly ending up in the child welfare system.
The CHRT ruling calls on the federal government to cease the discriminatory practice and take measures to fix and redress it.
As part of these measures, the tribunal says Ottawa needs to completely redesign the child welfare system and ensure culturally appropriate services are provided as part of the changes.
The ruling also says the federal government has been far too narrow in terms of applying Jordan’s Principle, which says jurisdictional disputes between Ottawa and the provinces should not result in inequities in terms of the level of services First Nations children receive.
Executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society Cindy Blackstock has sparred with the federal government over the issue for years.
She says in some ways the ruling is bittersweet.
“What I find the most shocking of all about this case – I am a social worker – why did we have to bring the Government of Canada to court to get them to treat First Nations children fairly? Little kids, why would it be okay to give a child less than other children?”
Blackstock adds First Nations children are three more times likely to end up in the child welfare system today than during the Indian residential school system.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde says the tribunal’s ruling provides an historic opportunity for the federal and provincial governments to work together as part of ensuring no First Nations child is left behind.
“We welcome the decision because it’s all about First Nations children getting these services and programs on-reserve and so they win,” he says. “There’s an opportunity now to fix the system and make sure that those needs are addressed immediately. But more importantly we want governments, all governments, to recommit to the implementation of Jordan’s Principle. That’s what this speaks to. Is to recommit and make sure that services to children, whether you’re on-reserve or off-reserve, get met.”
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Bobby Cameron says the CHRT ruling speaks to the larger issue of serious funding gaps in a number of areas for First Nations people living on-reserve.
“It (ruling) not only mentioned the under funding for child welfare on-reserve as opposed to provincial communities, it’s the same thing with education, with housing and all these other items,” he says. “Everything is connected. So, that’s certainly going to be one of the next issues of discussion to move forward on but, more importantly, to implement the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations and how it’s connected to the tribunal decision. They’re all interconnected and we look forward to meeting with provincial and federal officials to implement those decisions.”
Initial reactions out of Ottawa to the CHRT ruling are positive so far.
“This is wrong,” Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says. “You are not allowed to remove a child for poverty. If there’s no food in the fridge, you get some food in the fridge. We really have to take a look at these incentives that are fracturing families and taking children away from their culture and their history and where they do badly. This is hugely important to us to re-jig the incentives.”
Bennett would not put a dollar figure on how on the Liberal government plans to address the tribunal’s recommendations but she did note there is an upcoming budget.