Health Canada turns to Facebook to find Indigenous kids in need of care

Health Canada has placed advertisements on Facebook to find more Indigenous kids to help with their health care needs, after the department faced criticism for the slow roll-out of new funds under Jordan's Principle.

'Advertising on Facebook tells me they actually have no idea how to run a competent medical service,' NDP MP

Health Canada is placing ads on Facebook to find more Indigenous children to help with their medical needs, including wheelchairs, hearing aids, home care and help with disabilities. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Health Canada is placing ads on Facebook to find more Indigenous children to help with their medical needs, after the department faced criticism for the slow roll-out of new funds earmarked to close gaps in care for First Nations children.

The sponsored post on the popular social media site poses a question, "Do you know a First Nations [or] Inuit infant, child or youth with a need who cannot access a publicly funded service or program that is available to other children? Please contact [us] for assistance."

The ad then directs users to click through to learn more about Jordan's Principle, and determine who might be eligible for federal supports. The online campaign cost about $8,750 in the last month.

Jordan's Principle is a federal policy that stipulates no Indigenous child should suffer denials, delays or disruptions of health services due to jurisdictional disputes over who will pay between Ottawa and the provinces or territories.

Health Canada is placing ads on Facebook to help its find First Nations kids in need of care. (Screenshot from Facebook)

The department got a significant injection of funds last summer after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the federal government's spending levels were discriminatory. However, Health Canada spent only a quarter of the $127 million budgeted in the last fiscal year.

The money was earmarked for services previously denied by Health Canada — but covered by the provinces — 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.

Why don't they just phone the medical authorities at nursing stations — they'll tell you who needs care- Charlie Angus, NDP MP

After a CBC News report in February about the slow start, the department is now "redoubling" its efforts to find kids to help, a senior bureaucrat said in an interview. As of Feb. 23, 2017, a total of just 3,305 kids have had requests for services and/or support approved under Jordan's Principle, and the numbers vary wildly by region.

"There's been a slow uptake to begin with, so the decision was made to do further outreach through social media ... and connect kids and families with this initiative," Robin Buckland, the executive director of primary care at the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, said. "We're increasing our efforts to get the word out there about Jordan's Principle."

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.

Using Facebook to find kids 'troubling': NDP MP

Buckland said the department's research shows Facebook is a particularly popular platform with Indigenous peoples. Since the launch of the ads, the department has had moderate success reaching users. The English-language post has been shared 873 times, while 27 people have shared the French version. Ads on Twitter and LinkedIn will soon follow, Buckland said.

Northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus, a critic of Health Canada's handling of the First Nations file, said turning to social media to find children needing help is "mind-boggling" and "troubling,"

"The fact that they are advertising on Facebook tells me they actually have no idea how to run a competent medical service to protect Indigenous children," Angus said. "Why don't they just phone the medical authorities at nursing stations — they'll tell you who needs care. This is not how a First World country should be delivering services."

"All this is about is making bureaucrats look like they've done their job, and to show that the [Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett] isn't incompetent."

NDP MP Charlie Angus says it's ridiculous that the government has no contacts in the health community to help find children in need. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The government has faced criticism, notably from child advocate Cindy Blackstock, for using a definition of Jordan's Principle that is too restrictive. Initially, the department maintained that it applies only to children with "multiple disabilities requiring multiple service providers."

There is a broader definition in use now, as per the tribunal's orders, but the more restrictive definition was posted on the department's website for months.

Restrictive definition of Jordan's Principle

Critics have said this was misleading to parents who were making inquiries about eligibility. A complaint from Blackstock, who runs the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, is currently being reviewed by the tribunal, as it considers whether to issue another non-compliance order.

In a recent submission to the tribunal, lawyers for the Canadian Human Rights Commission said there is "compelling evidence" that Canada has been "distributing unduly narrow and non-compliant definitions of Jordan's Principle" in its public communications.

"Accurate and consistent information about Jordan's Principle is not being communicated to government bureaucrats, stakeholders, or the public," the commission said.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, has made a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal about access to health care under Jordan's Principle. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Angus said the Facebook ads are proof the department is "scrambling to find a way to get money out the the door," and to "make it look like they're living up to their legal obligations."

"The advertising is a plea bargain with the human rights tribunal," he said.

Jordan's Principle 'focal points'

Health Canada has said it's having trouble finding children and youth to help because the provision of First Nations health care in this country is "broken," and there is inadequate "case co-ordination capacity," or people on the ground.

Now, the government has established 37 full-time "focal points," a full-time employee in a regional Health Canada office  dedicated to connecting kids in need — and their doctors — with federal funds.

"They're there to help break down the silos that exist in health care," Buckland said. "These employees are going to be a key contact for families, for communities."

Buckland, a nurse by training, and a former single mom, said she knows how it difficult it can be for parents — juggling jobs and raising kids, especially those with special needs — to keep track of all government programs that are available to them.

The "focal points" will ensure caseloads are better attended to, Buckland said, and requests for money don't go unnoticed.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

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.