Indigenous mother's 11-year battle for disabled son's transportation to be settled
Carolyn Buffalo cautiously optimistic her fight could be over after minister responds
A mother from Maskwacis, Alta. was shocked to learn the federal government is looking at settling a decade-long dispute to provide funding for her disabled son to get to school.
Noah Buffalo-Jackson, 15, lives with cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (now the Department of Indigenous Services) has denied his family funding for specialized transportation since he started school.
In 2012 Buffalo filed a human rights complaint against the federal government, citing a human rights violation — seeking compensation for discrimination, damages and lost income.
"These [First Nations] children have rights to education like any other child — and I'm not even talking about treaty rights to education," said Carolyn Buffalo, Noah's mom.
"[Noah's] rights as a human being have been violated. All the kids on reserve that have been told 'no' by the feds or provincial governments and denied services that are available to other children is a violation of human rights because of who we are and where we live."
"Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, victims of discrimination are entitled to compensation for all of their loss incurred as a result of the discrimination they have experienced," said Anne Levesque, the family's lawyer. They are seeking $200,000 from the federal government.
"[The family is] also entitled to compensation for their pain and suffering. In this case, we are also seeking punitive damages since Canada has discriminated willfully and recklessly against a child, who is particularly vulnerable, for over 10 years," she added.
Family hoped Jordan's Principle would help
Noah's family had hoped Jordan's Principle, which exists to bridge the gaps between provincial and federal jurisdictions for providing healthcare to First Nations children, could have provided for Noah's transportation needs. However, the resources available through Jordan's Principle were never allotted to Noah, Buffalo said, due to broad definitions of who qualifies and the federal government previously stating that they would not provide extra funding for Noah's needs.
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"They told me, 'We're not going to increase funding for Noah. What we're giving you is what we're giving you' — which is the amount for all Maskwacis kids.
"They said, 'If you have issues, you go talk to Louis Bull, we give them the funding,'" explained Buffalo.
The Louis Bull Band in Maskwacis operates the Four Nations School transportation system and for two years was able to provide Noah with busing using the resources they had. After that they were no longer able to afford it, said Buffalo.
"There's a huge geographical area that they have to cover. I don't know how many thousands of kids that they have to transport to numerous schools. They have a huge responsibility — they just didn't have the money for special needs transportation," she said.
Out of desperation the family cashed in savings, bought a van and took time off work to make sure Noah could get to school.
Minister calls situation 'unconscionable'
On Wednesday, after CBC contacted of Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, Buffalo got word that they were looking into resolving the matter.
A remediation meeting was scheduled last week with the Buffalo family, a local elder, the First Nations Caring Society and lawyers for the federal government.
Buffalo said she was expecting to be offered a settlement but cancelled the meeting abruptly when she was told by the INAC legal team that they needed more time to research the case.
When CBC contacted Minister Philpott's office requesting comment on the matter earlier this week, they responded immediately saying a settlement is in the works.
"It is unconscionable that this family has had to go through this for 11 years," said Philpott via an email statement to CBC.
"The family should have received these services and should not have had to fight for over a decade to have this resolved. We have been in contact with the family's legal counsel and it is our intention to have a settlement reached in the very near future."
"I'm really flabbergasted," said Buffalo upon learning that a settlement could be coming soon. "It's hard to take in. We've been fighting for so long."
But she is cautious given that Noah has been left out for so long.
"It's not resolved yet — it's just words until we actually get a settlement. But it feels pretty surreal," said Buffalo.
Owed an apology: Caring Society
Buffalo says had Noah he been born off-reserve, and a member of mainstream society, the government would have provided for his special needs.
"Carolyn Buffalo in many ways is symbolic of the struggles many First nations parents have had by Canada's failure to implement Jordan's principle," said First Nations Caring Society of Canada executive director Cindy Blackstock, who spearheaded the Jordan's Principle legislation.
"Here we have a mom of a boy that she loves more than the moon and back and just wants to get him transportation money so he can go to school. He would've gotten that without question if he was non- Aboriginal."
In May 2017 the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Canada was continuing a pattern of conduct and narrow focus with respect to Jordan's Principle resulting in delays, gaps and denial of essential public services to First Nations children.
The Tribunal then issued its third set of non-compliance orders to the federal government.
"Even after the ruling they [federal government] still haven't resolved this case and [Buffalo is] still having to fight," said Blackstock.
"I can't imagine what it's like to be a parent and have to try and spend 11 years fighting with the government of Canada to get your child the services every other child would get. It's heartbreaking and it's unnecessary," said Blackstock. Adding that she things Buffalo is owed an apology from the federal government.
Tens of thousands of kids helped, say feds
In the statement, Minister Philpott's office said that since 2016 more than 19,700 new service requests have been approved by the Trudeau government under Jordan's Principle.
"We know that this number will continue to grow, and we continue to work with our First Nations partners to build the capacity in communities to identify more children in need to ensure that no child goes without the care they need," it said.
Noah's case is one of only two current active litigations involving Jordan's Principle nationwide. The other is on behalf of Alberta Cree teen Josey Willier, whose mother recently sued the Liberal government in an attempt to force them to pay for Willier's $6,000 orthodontic treatment.
"Were talking about meeting the basic needs of little children after Canada has apologized for the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop," said Blackstock.
"My question is, what have they learned if they can't treat these children properly? This isn't rocket science. They already treat the other Canadian children equitably," Blackstock added.
"There is no government excuse that we're going to accept for ongoing discrimination against our kids."