The House

Fix First Nations child welfare system now, says Cindy Blackstock

A leading First Nations children's advocate is hailing Ottawa's decision to abandon its legal challenge on First Nations child welfare, but warns she will remain vigilant until the government delivers on its commitment.
Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. An outspoken child advocate is taking the federal government to task over its approach to a policy designed to ensure all First Nations children access necessary services, noting the issue will be the subject of public hearings this spring. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A leading First Nations children's advocate is hailing Ottawa's decision to abandon its legal challenge on First Nations child welfare, but warns she will remain vigilant until the government delivers on its commitment.

"I have always measured this on whether a little kid actually can go in and get the health care that they need… whether they can go to a school that doesn't have black mould contamination," Cindy Blackstock told The House. "None of us should be satisfied or patting ourselves on the back until that happens for every single kid in the country."

Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

In 2007, she and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging that Canada was discriminating against First Nations children by underfunding child welfare services on reserve.

In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal sided with Blackstock and the AFN.

The tribunal has since issued three compliance orders, demanding the federal government fully implement Jordan's Principle — a resolution passed in the House of Commons in 2007, affirming that the health care needs of First Nations children must take precedence over jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments.

The Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada talks about Ottawa's decision to drop a judicial review to a Human Rights ruling on First Nations child health care.

The Trudeau government had said it would seek "clarity" from the Federal Court on the tribunal's latest compliance order, but Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced Thursday that an agreement had been reached with the parties to the case.

While Blackstock welcomed the government's decision, she said it must be followed by nothing less than full compliance with Jordan's Principle.

"Let's get this behind us," she said. "Let's raise a generation of First Nations kids — for the first time in the history of this country — that actually get the same level of services that every other kid enjoys."

In an interview with The House, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said she shares Blackstock's goals.

"We want to make sure that there is no First Nations, Inuit or Métis child in this country that's not getting the access to the care that they need," she said. "When people talk directly together, it's amazing what happens."

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott has convened her provincial and territorial counterparts to an emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare early next year. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Although Philpott conceded there's still much that needs to be done, she said the federal government has been working hard to ensure First Nations children receive the services they need, adding that 24,000 Jordan's Principle cases have been approved over the last 18 months.

Now a few months into her mandate, Philpott told The House she has been encouraged by her interactions so far with Indigenous people across the country.

"The solutions are in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities," she said. "We as a government and as Canadians need to provide the support to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples. I really believe this is fundamental to our success as a country going forward."

The federal and provincial governments will have an opportunity to discuss some of those solutions when they meet early next year at an emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare convened by Minister Philpott.

As for Blackstock, she said it's high time the federal and provincial governments address the inequalities facing First Nations children once and for all.

"This isn't an issue that just sprung up. It's been something that's lingered and piled up on hopes and dreams of generations of First Nations kids," she said. "Children only get one childhood. Fix it today."

The Minister of Indigenous Services discusses the gaps that remain in the services available to First Nations children.