Just as Bernard Valcourt starts his new job as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development minister, the federal government is before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal today to defend itself against allegations that it discriminates against First Nations children living on reserves.
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations are "challenging the federal government on the issue of discrimination on funding for child services for our children in our communities," Shawn Atleo, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, told CBC Radio's The House on Saturday.
Atleo said these are the sorts of "pressing issues" Valcourt will have to tackle right away.
The national chief is making an opening statement as the hearings begin, advocating for the need for equity and fairness for First Nations children.
The complaint, first filed in 2007, alleges the federal government has a "longstanding pattern" of providing less funding for child welfare services to First Nations children on reserves than it does to non-aboriginal children living off reserves.
The Harper government argues it has increased its funding for child and family services by 25 percent, to over $600 million annually.
"This case was filed as a last resort after successive governments have failed to implement the solutions that would help First Nations children stay safely in their families," according to Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Since then, according to the FNCFCS, the federal government has spent over $3 million in its efforts to have the complaint dismissed.
"Protecting women and children on reserve is a priority for the federal government, and we'll continue to take concrete steps that result in real progress for both women and children," Jason MacDonald, a spokesperson for Valcourt, said in a written statement.
And thanks to agreements with six provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba – "almost 70 per cent of First Nations children and families on reserve across Canada now benefit from a more effective approach to child and family services as well as additional funding," MacDonald said.
The federal government has also introduced Bill S-2, titled the family homes on reserves and matrimonial interests or rights act, which is intended to protect the rights of women on reserve.
And it is also consulting with First Nations communities on aboriginal education in the hopes of passing new legislation early next year that would include educational standards for aboriginal children.
In April, the Federal Court rejected the federal government's attempts to prevent First Nations groups from arguing for better funding for child welfare on reserves.
The federal government had tried to block the case, saying federal and provincial funding levels for services couldn't be compared.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal initially sided with the government’s view and dismissed the case.
But the Federal Court disagreed and ordered the tribunal to hold a new hearing with a new panel.
The attorney general has appealed the Federal Court's ruling.
While that appeal will be heard next month, these hearings, which are expected to last 14 weeks, are starting as scheduled this week.