Canada's record on First Nations child welfare to face scrutiny in Washington

The Assembly of First Nations regional chief in Manitoba is warning the state of First Nations child welfare system is in such a sorry state that is akin to subjecting kids to genocide.

Assembly of First Nations' Manitoba regional chief says current child welfare system is 'genocidal'

Cindy Blackstock, left, will appear before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Friday, where Canada's record on First Nations child welfare services will face scrutiny. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's treatment of First Nations children will be debated on the world stage Friday, with the federal government poised to appear before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to defend the current state of the child welfare system.

The hearing will focus on a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling from January, which found that Ottawa has consistently failed to provide services to First Nations children comparable to those offered by provincial systems, and that the resulting funding gap is state-sanctioned racial discrimination. It ordered Ottawa to immediately overhaul the system and increase funding.

Two compliance orders have been issued since the ruling, and the tribunal has asked the federal government to provide an update on its efforts to correct persistent funding problems.

The Liberal government backed an NDP motion in October calling for an emergency injection of $155 million into the child welfare system, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett appointed a new special representative on child welfare.

And yet the government has spent more than $500,000 in legal fees since January 2016 fighting the case, according to documents filed in the House of Commons late last month and provided to CBC News.

Cindy Blackstock, head of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and the woman who originally launched the tribunal case some ten years ago, said progress has been completely "unsatisfactory" and far too slow to correct systemic wrongs.

Blackstock will appear Friday before the commission — a body of the Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member — to further push the case.

The commission's mandate is to promote and protect human rights, and it monitors progress on certain files in member states.

"The one thing we're going to be asking for is a follow-up hearing on Canada so the world keeps its attention on how Canada is treating this generation of First Nations children," she said.

Blackstock said the Inter-American Commission granted the hearing after receiving complaints of inaction. It will also be tasked with studying Canada's implementation of Jordan's Principle, which it agreed to do in April.

Jordan's Principle refers to a policy designed to deal with jurisdictional disputes between Ottawa and the provinces over who pays for health services for Indigenous children.

Child services 'genocidal' 

Nearly half of all children in foster care — some 14,200, according to Statistics Canada — are Indigenous, and most of those kids are under the care of a provincially-run child welfare system. There are currently more Indigenous children in state care than at the height of the residential school era. 

Hundreds of First Nations have died in the foster care system over the past two decades, with many more subjected to abuse.

"It is genocidal, if you look at it, it's just a legalized form of the residential school system that was imposed upon our people," Assembly of First Nations regional chief Chief Kevin Hart said in an interview with CBC News.

'They're apprehending our children because of poverty, we're being set up for failure,' says Assembly of First Nations regional chief Kevin Hart. (CBC)

"They're apprehending our children because of poverty, we're being set up for failure. We have to say enough is enough. Our children deserve to be at home," he said, while reading off the UN definition of genocide, which includes causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of an ethnic group.

He said the entire system, as it is currently constituted, is racist, and needs to be rebuilt with First Nations taking control over the provision of child welfare away from the provinces — something Bennett has agreed to facilitate as part of her planned comprehensive reforms.

"They need to take a step back and we need to take that jurisdiction away. Because in Manitoba it's a billion-dollar industry," he said, referencing the amount of federal dollars that flow to the provincial system to care for First Nations children.

Blackstock said she was moved by the tribute to The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie on Tuesday, and thanked him for his work highlighting the plight of residential school survivors, but said she did not want activists to take their eyes off the ball.

"Let's not normalize the crisis in front of us ... we think this is in the rearview mirror. We need that same dedication, that same heartfelt action for this generation of First Nations children and young people and all the generations to follow," she said.

To that effect, Blackstock said she and the AFN are readying to file another motion to ask the tribunal to find the federal government is again in non-compliance. There will be a public hearing in January on that matter.

"I think all of us in the room wish it was not necessary," she said in her address to the chiefs.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau committed $382.5 million over three years, in his March budget, to better meet the needs of First Nations children, but Blackstock said the funding is back-loaded to the third year and does not provide adequate support in the short-term.

"We must demand equity for children now not five years from now," she said. "These kids are the pipelines of our future, it's not the oil in the ground." 


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.