For 12 years now the government of Canada – first under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and now under Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – has been fighting to defend its policy of systemically underfunding on-reserve First Nations children living in government care. How do we even know about this systemic underfunding? It is due to the courageous work of Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan activist for child welfare and the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. She is the one who has been leading the fight against the government of Canada and working to hold its hypocritical feet to the fire.
In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights tribunal found that the federal government has been discriminating against First Nations children on reserves who are in government care. This amounts to discrimination against 165,000 children based solely on their race and should have been easily corrected in the following annual budget, but instead the government is spending taxpayer dollars fighting to defend this injustice.
An article from Canada Press explains some of the recent work of Cindy Blackstock and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Journalist Kelly Geraldine Malone writes, “[Blackstock] was involved in a multi-year challenge that led to a Canadian Human Rights tribunal ruling that the federal government “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children on reserves. The tribunal ordered the government to financially compensate First Nations families torn apart by children being inappropriately placed in foster care.” In the article Cindy Blackstock is quoted as saying, "it was like pulling tooth and nail to get them to the point that we have them now and they are continuing to fight against the tribunal's compensation order."
In September 2019, the Canadian Human Rights tribunal issued its 8th non-compliance order regarding compensation for First Nations children and their families who were negatively impacted by Canada's discriminatory practices. The tribunal ordered Canada’s Federal government to pay $40,000 to each First Nations child affected by the on-reserve child welfare system since 2006. According to CBC News, the tribunal also ordered the government, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and the Assembly of First Nations, “to negotiate a method for dealing with the mechanics of the compensation and present it by Dec. 10.” Rather than acting swiftly to rectify this injustice, the government complained that the tribunal order could cost up to $8 billion. They then filed with the Federal Court of Canada asking for a judicial review of the decision and for a pause so they would not have to meet the December 10 deadline.
This led to a hearing with the Federal Court of Canada at the end of November. On November 29, 2019, the Federal Court of Canada handed down a decision which approved the judicial review of the case but denied the motion to pause the December 10 deadline.
We must ask why would a government who claims it is committed to “truth and reconciliation” with Indigenous people want to pause an order which would force them to reconcile an injustice against First Nations children in care, some of the most vulnerable children in Canada today?
According to CBC News, the government of Canada argued in its filings to the Federal Court that the Canadian Human Rights tribunal order, “was an overreach and that the original case was about systemic discrimination, which required a systemic fix, not individual compensation, which is the purview of class action law." But really if you believe in equality for all children, the government is responsible to do both! Fix the systemic problem and provide compensation to those who have been discriminated against. However, this claim that they even want a systemic fix is not backed up by their track record. Their record instead demonstrates that in every annual Liberal budget they have not increased funding to sufficiently deal with systemic inequality.
In fact, Trudeau’s first budget was in 2016, and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order for $40,000 in compensation for First Nations children (along with their parent or grandparent) is in relation to a lack of services between December 2007 and November 2017. This means the tribunal recognizes the first two budgets of the Trudeau government as being wholly insufficient. However, the 2018 and 2019 budgets were also criticized by Cindy Blackstock. While the 2018 budget promised funding for First Nations child welfare would rise to about $1.1 billion a year over the next five years (CBC) and the 2019 budget promised $1.2 billion towards Jordan’s Principle over the next three years (APTN) – Cindy Blackstock was cautious in her optimism explaining to Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network (APTN) regarding the 2019 budget, “I think that’s an important piece, to make sure children and families receive the supports that they deserved for so long. [...] So that’s positive but, it doesn’t include funding for children who will become eligible under S-3, or any kind of population growth.” According to APTN, S-3 is a status for Indigenous children whose parents do not have “Indian Status” with the government of Canada but can prove Indigenous ancestry. What Blackstock is explaining is that even though $1.2 billion sounds like a fair amount of money, the budget is for the bare minimum number of youths that will need help. It will not stretch to cover new youth expected to enter the system under S-3 or any population growth. How is that possible for a government that claims it is looking for a “systemic fix”?
Since Canada becaFme a country in 1867, it has systemically discriminated against Indigenous people, violated their human rights, ignored treaty obligations, and illegally stolen land. The government and super-wealthy of Canada have built their wealth by exploiting the lands and resources and marginalizing and oppressing Indigenous people. While to some this sounds like history from long ago, this process continues today, and the case of Indigenous children in government care is but one small example.
For over a decade the government of Canada has fought Cindy Blackstock in court in order to avoid having to pay equally for Indigenous children in government care. Let it be noted, that the government care system is already broken, with a bad reputation for the treatment of children. This system needs much more funding and resources for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. However, what this case shows us is how comfortable the ruling capitalist class in Canada is with continuing to create an unequal playing field for Indigenous children; how acceptable it is for them to provide Indigenous children with substandard services; how everything for the government comes down to dollars and cents and not human rights and needs. These are the fundamental issues that must be addressed if we want to talk about “truth and reconciliation.” While the government claims to want a “systemic fix” it continues to perpetrate the same discrimination year after year, budget after budget. Their words are empty promises and their plan is a continuation of Canada’s colonial legacy.
Indigenous communities and nations need to be able to determine their own future. Of course, when the money and decisions are in the hands of Indigenous people it does not mean all problems from decades of discrimination will just melt away into a utopian dream, but it means that the communities who are facing these issues directly will have decision making-power. This is why we need to continue demanding that the government of Canada recognize the right of Indigenous nations to self-determination.
We also need to demand better funding and resources for all children in government care, but especially an end to the discriminatory system which provides less funding to Indigenous children living on reserves. Finally, the government of Canada must stop fighting the tribunal’s ruling and immediately compensate all First Nations families for the discrimination they faced.
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