Politics

Federal government still shortchanging First Nations children a year after tribunal ruling, advocates say

Top First Nations activists say the government is still shortchanging Indigenous children through discriminatory spending practices on child welfare and health care services, despite a year-old Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling.

Cindy Blackstock, child advocate, says 'colonial' attitudes are pervasive at Indigenous Affairs

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, says the federal government is still shortchanging kids a year after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the child welfare system is underfunded, and discriminatory. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Top First Nations activists said Thursday the government is still shortchanging Indigenous children through discriminatory spending practices on child welfare and health services, despite a year-old Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that demanded the government immediately close gaps in care.

Cindy Blackstock, a child advocate who filed a complaint with the tribunal more than 10 years ago, told reporters the government is failing — even after two orders from the quasi-judicial body calling on the federal government to provide services to First Nations children comparable to those offered by provincial systems.

I won't go so far as to say these individuals are racist, but the system is racist.- Cindy Blackstock

The government voted in favour of an NDP motion last fall to inject $155 million into child and family services — but the money hasn't been spent, Blackstock said.

She said bureaucrats in Indigenous Affairs have a "colonial" attitude towards First Nations-run child welfare agencies as they routinely question their capacity to appropriately spend money.

"I won't go so far as to say these individuals are racist, but the system is racist," she said. "How much of the colonial philosophy within the department is colouring their perception of First Nations service providers?"

Blackstock said the government is hung up on further "engagement" on how best to reform the system, while more and more children are taken from their communities.

Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society says that little has been done to rectify problems outlined by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and the delays are costing children their lives. 2:43

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, or during the Sixties Scoop.

The Sixties Scoop refers to an estimated 16,000 Indigenous children who were placed in non-native homes between 1965 and 1984 after a series of federal-provincial agreements on child welfare. A judge recently ruled the federal government failed to prevent on-reserve children in Ontario from losing their Indigenous identity after they were forcibly taken from their homes during this period.

"We are going to be here in another 10 years talking about the 2017 scoop, and the government is going to be apologizing for that and settling it. I want to get ahead of that, I want to keep those kids in their families, give them the childhood they deserve, and no apologies will be needed in the future," she said.

She said Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett's appointment of a ministerial special representative (MSR) to study problems with child welfare system is simply an attempt at political damage control. Blackstock said the minister's pick to help reform the system, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, is odd because she is not academically trained as a social worker.

Bennett denied her ministry is dragging its heels.

"We are exerting every ounce of political muscle on this," she told reporters before question period. "I think you'll find that in the agencies, they know we're working with them.

"Money needs to go to communities, and money needs to change the system so that less kids are in care. The money is flowing and available," she said.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Thursday her department is flowing money to reform a 'broken' First Nations child welfare system. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Budget 2016, which was drafted before the tribunal's ruling, committed some $635 million over five years in new funding for child welfare, but most of that money is back-loaded to 2019, and 2020, a year after the next scheduled election.

Limited definition of Jordan's Principle

In addition to its findings on child welfare, the tribunal also ruled that the federally run First Nations health-care system is discriminatory. It ordered the government to fully implement Jordan's Principle and provide services to Indigenous kids at the same level as those provided by the provinces to children living off-reserve.

Blackstock said the government is only implementing a limited definition of Jordan's Principle, despite the tribunal's ruling, as the government applying it only to children with disabilities.

Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, speaks to reporters at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary. Philpott conceded there is much more work to do to fix the provision of health care to First Nations children. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Jordan's Principle is named after Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old boy with serious and complex medical needs who died in hospital in 2005 after a drawn-out court battle between the federal government and Manitoba over who should pay his home-care costs.

Last summer, the government announced $382 million in funding over three years for services previously denied by Health Canada — but covered by the provinces for non-Indigenous children — such as mental health supports, home care and help for children living with disabilities, as well as for things as basic as infant formula, hearing aids and wheelchairs.

But as CBC News first reported earlier this month, Health Canada has spent only a quarter of the $127 million budgeted this year to implement Jordan's Principle. The government has only "identified" 3,000 children who require treatment at a cost of $30-40 million.

"We've got a lot more work to do, but we're determined," Health Minister Jane Philpott said Thursday.