Human rights tribunal ruling should prompt overhaul of funding formula, says prof

The federal government must adopt a band-specific system if it wants to stop discriminating against First Nations children and families, says Linda Many Guns, University of Lethbridge professor.

'I'm hoping that the embarrassment of this might loosen up the purse strings,' Linda Many Guns says

A young aboriginal boy is shown at a demonstration in 2006 while former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo holds a sign. On Tuesday, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminates against children on First Nations reserves. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Today's landmark ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal points to the need for a complete overhaul of the way the federal government pays for and manages child welfare services on First Nations reserves, says a University of Lethbridge professor

"I think it should be thrown out. I think they should start the whole thing over," said Linda Many Guns, professor of Native American Studies.

In a decision handed down today, the tribunal found that the federal government discriminates against children living on reserves by failing to provide them with the same quality of welfare services available to children elsewhere in the country.

When CBC's Alberta at Noon asked Many Guns to describe the state of child welfare services on reserves now, she replied with one word: "abysmal."

"This horrific [funding] formula that they've been using that really isn't relevant to any community has finally been addressed by this tribunal," she said.

"The message has been very clear, that there needs to be a case-by-case or band-by-band formula that's drafted that's mutually agreed upon," Many Guns said.

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"It has to be based on need, rather than on somebody in Ottawa figuring out a formula of using numbers that we're not quite sure are even factually based on reserve numbers," she said.

Money not the full answer

Internal federal government documents estimate the child welfare funding shortfall to be between 22 and 34 per cent, compared with provincial rates.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said fixing the problem will undoubtedly cost money, but did not commit to a specific figure. 

"It's difficult to put a price tag on not providing indigenous children with the opportunity to be able to succeed," she said.

Many Guns, however, said money is just one part of the solution.

"The other part of it is control by the specific bands. Each one of them has unique problems. Whether they're way up north or they're down south, their population bases are different.

"They have to have some development in whatever the program is. They have to get rid of this formula," she said.

"I'm hoping that the embarrassment of this might loosen up the purse strings, so at least some services could come through the present system and that an adjustment or initiative based on the bands' preferences could start to take place," Many Guns said.

"I don't think it's that difficult. We're an intelligent society, and we have systems already in place in each of the nations. They know what they need."