The Current

Indigenous leaders give Trudeau government failing grade on delivering promises

Today marks the one year anniversary since the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's historic finding that the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves. Critics say too little progress has been made to fix things.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and the Liberal government have committed to supporting Indigenous child welfare services but many say there's little progress. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

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It's been one year since the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's historic finding that the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves.

But despite lofty pronouncements by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,  an internal report card from the Privy Council Office has given the Trudeau government a failing grade for delivering on its promises to Indigenous Canadians.

"If Justin Trudeau was one of my students I think he would be at the bottom of the class," says Hayden King, assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at Carleton University.

"I think this government is particularly exceptional for showing up to class but just failing to do any of the work." 

King tells The Current's guest host Connie Walker the list of commitments that have been made and not undertaken is extremely long, but says in terms of action, some communities have received education resources. 

"You have to give credit to Justin Trudeau for showing up and meeting with the First Nation leadership as often as he does. The bar was pretty low set by the previous prime minister," King says but continues with his list of broken promises that are languishing, such as the TRC calls to action, the declaration on the rights of Indigenous people, the so-called decolonization process.
One year after the Canadian Human Rights tribunal decision, Cindy Blackstock says the federal government continues to ignore important areas of need for Indigenous children in Canada. Cindy Blackstock (Canadian Press)

Carolyn Bennett, Canada's minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, tells Walker those meetings are genuine and that "the partnership is real."

"We are seriously trying to decolonize — that means more and more communities trying to get out from under the Indian Act with our help."

Bennett says money has never flown out of government faster to be able to see "tremendous change" in communities.

"We want to see eventually community planning and the kinds of transfers that allow communities to make their own decisions."

For Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, "it's not only a matter of promises that haven't been met by the government."

"This was a legally-binding ruling where the Canadian government was found to be racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children and they were ordered to immediately stop," Blackstock tells Walker. "They didn't do it."

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has issued two noncompliance orders against the Canadian government.

Blackstock says that complying with the orders means an immediate investment of a minimum of $155 million for child welfare, "to give these kids a fighting chance to grow up in the families."

"A second piece is they have to fully implement something called 'Jordan's principle' which is to ensure that all First Nations children can access government services on the same terms as other kids." 
Wapekeka, in northern Ontario, is home to about 400 residents. (YouTube)

Blackstock explains the current definition says, "Only children with short- term critical illnesses and disabilities can access equitable services if you're First Nations, not other kids." 

Bennett tells Walker "Jordan's principle" no longer includes the eligibility requirement that a First Nations child on reserve must have multiple disabilities that need various service providers. 

"That means since July 1st, 1,500 more kids are getting the kind of care they need."

The Wapekeka First Nation asked Health Canada for suicide-prevention funds to urgently help a group of suicidal children but their plea was ignored. Two 12-year-old girls died by suicide within days of each other in early January.

"The children die tragically … needlessly and then a private donor has to come up with the money to get the kids some mental health treatment because Canada is moving too slowly," says Blackstock.

"That's completely unacceptable."

Bennett tells Walker that addressing this issue is a two-pronged approach, dealing with mental health supports in communities and dealing with the "scourge of intergenerational trauma of residential schools, the issue of child abuse."

"We know the link between child abuse and suicide is almost direct … and that's what's so inspiring about the young people, they are talking to me about child abuse, they know that this has to stop.

"They want safe places and they want their families healed because because this legacy of residential schools is killing people."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Ines Colabrese and Samira Mohyeddin.