Piecemeal approach to change perpetuates inequality for First Nations children

Canada seems content to provide some funding to address inequalities faced by First Nations children, but never enough to fully address the problem, says Cindy Blackstock.

Canada laments wrongs done to First Nations children in the past while continuing them in the present

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, is pictured in her Ottawa office with one of the organization's bear ambassadors. (Submitted)

Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, has universal health and education systems and ranks 10th in the world on the 2016 United Nations Human Development report.

So why are First Nations children consistently doing so poorly on almost every socio-economic and health indicator?

While the multi-generational effects of residential schools and other colonial policies explain some of the outcome gaps, the federal government's chronic underfunding of public services for First Nations children and families on reserves and in Yukon rubs salt into the colonial wound.

The inequalities arise because the Canadian government funds public services on First Nations reserves whereas the provincial/territorial governments fund it for all others. Federal funding levels for First Nations fall far below what non-Indigenous Canadians receive and Canada has repeatedly squandered numerous opportunities to fix the inequalities.

Instead, Canada seems content with a policy of incremental equality whereby most federal budgets provide some funding to address inequalities but never enough to fully address the problem. The result for First Nations children is that they experience inequality across all areas of their life experience, ranging from an under-funded education system to water and food insecurity.

Compounding the problem is the pervasive public view that First Nations receive more public services – not less. Over half of all First Nations children live in poverty, they are 12 times more likely to be removed from their families, graduate at less than half the rate of their non-Indigenous peers and are over-represented on a plethora of poor health indicators.

The Auditor General of Canada has linked many of these poor outcomes to Canada's inadequate funding of public services for First Nations children. Inequitable public services place First Nations children, youth and families in a seemingly endless cycle of discrimination and needless tragedy.

TB in residential schools

Links between the inequities and the deaths of First Nations children were first documented in 1907 by Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, the federal government's own Chief Medical Health Officer. Bryce found that First Nations children in residential schools were dying of tuberculosis far above the rate of other children. Bryce called on Canada to immediately provide equitable care and to take a series of practical life-saving measures such as improving ventilation and reducing overcrowding.

The cost of Bryce's reforms was estimated at between $10,000 and $15,000 per annum. The Canadian government buried Bryce's report and retaliated against him when he would not keep quiet. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that 4,000 children died while attending residential schools. The last residential school closed in Canada in 1996.

The inequities were not limited to health. First Nations children received less for all public services and these inequities and the associated harms persisted across the decades despite available solutions to fix them. These inequities contributed to a landscape of deep disadvantage for First Nations children today.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, holds a copy of the Human Rights Tribunal's second compliance order. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Human rights complaint filed

By 2006, First Nations had had enough with Canada's persistent pattern of acknowledging the reports, saying they will review them and then taking little to no action to end the inequities. The Chiefs of all First Nations in Canada unanimously supported the Assembly of First Nations, and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a non-profit organization promoting First Nations children's rights, to file a human rights complaint against Canada alleging its inequitable funding in child and family services and failure to ensure First Nations children have equitable access to all government services amounted to racial discrimination.

The complaint was filed in early 2007, launching a nine-year highly contested legal battle. Before the final arguments were heard in 2014, Canada would bring eight motions to have the case dismissed on legal technicalities, breach the law on three occasions by unlawfully withholding records and willfully and recklessly retaliating against me for filing the complaint in my role as executive director of the Caring Society.

A year later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report listing child welfare equity and reform as its top Call to Action. The prime minister welcomed the Calls to Action and agreed to implement them all. It sounded like good news for those of us hoping Canada would finally end the profound inequalities that contributed to more First Nations children being in child welfare care than at the height of residential schools.

3 non-compliance orders

In a landmark ruling in 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal substantiated the complaint, noting Canada's repeated failures to act on credible solutions to end the discrimination and linking it to the unnecessary removals of First Nations children from their families. The tribunal ordered Canada to immediately cease its discriminatory and retained jurisdiction over the complaint to ensure Canada's compliance. The tribunal has been so unsatisfied with Canada's conduct in this case that it has issued three non-compliance orders.

In its most recent ruling, the tribunal linked Canada's non-compliance with the suicide deaths of two 12-year old girls who were denied equitable mental health treatment despite pleas from First Nations leadership. The tribunal has taken a fourth non-compliance order under reserve.

In August 2017, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it was "alarming" that Canada perpetuated discrimination against First Nations children and their families despite prior recommendations from the Committee and repeated orders from the tribunal.

Alarming indeed. It is not enough for the Government of Canada to lament the wrongs done to First Nations children in the past while perpetuating them in the present. It is well past the time for Canada to comply with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decisions and end its discriminatory provision of services to First Nations children as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on it to do.

Many countries in the world have banned government-based racial discrimination; it is time Canada joins them — without reservation and without delay.

This column is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.


Cindy Blackstock

Executive Director of Caring Society

Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of the Caring Society and associate professor, University of Alberta. A member of the Gitksan Nation, Cindy has worked in the field of child and family services for over 25 years. Her key interests include exploring, and addressing, the causes of disadvantage for Aboriginal children and families by promoting equitable and culturally based interventions.