APTN National News
The federal New Democratic Party is calling for an independent investigation into the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Justice Canada’s conduct at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
On Wednesday, the tribunal panel accused both departments of knowingly misleading the tribunal and the parties involved in a discrimination case against the government.
“The government has obligations at this tribunal,” said NDP Aboriginal Affairs critic Jean Crowder. “And they are well aware of them and they have disregarded those obligations.”
The tribunal is hearing a case brought on by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations. Both accuse Canada of spending less on First Nations child welfare than what provincial governments spend for non-First Nations children.
The controversy is around tens of thousands of documents relevant to the case that Canada failed to disclose to the tribunal and the parties involved. The discovery of the 50,000 documents only came after Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, became curious about the lack of information being disclosed by Canada at the hearing.
In the fall of 2012, Blackstock filed an access to information request to Aboriginal Affairs. In April 2013, she received a compact disc containing thousands of records dealing with First Nations child welfare agencies across the country and information regarding some of the witnesses who had already testified at the tribunal for the case.
When Blackstock cross-referenced the information to what the government had disclosed, she found that the information was no where to be found.
“There needs to be an investigation into the procedure,” said Crowder. “Who made the decisions? If the access to information hadn’t come up, those documents may never have come to light.”
The tribunal panel overseeing the case chastised the government for its lack of transparency.
In a ruling released Wednesday the panel wrote: “The respondent (Canada), knew of the existence of a number of these documents, prejudicial to its case and highly relevant in the summer of 2012 and yet failed to disclose them.”
According to the panel, the government knew back in October 2012 that it would miss its deadline to disclose the records set for February 25, 2013. It was informed by the company it hired, Public History Inc., that it was at risk of missing its deadline because of the vast amount of information it was sifting through.
The government hired a second company to assist in the procedure. Canadian Development Consultants Inc. that also informed the government in March of 2013 that it would not have a package ready until the end of September.
“It is deeply troubling that the federal government continues to delay and obstruct an inquiry aimed at achieving fairness, justice and safety for First Nations children,” said Jonathan Thompson, director of Child Welfare for the Assembly of First Nations.”
The panel noted in its Wednesday ruling that Canada had several opportunities to inform the tribunal and the parties of the extent of the information and the delays but failed to do so, “had the respondent communicated the challenges it faced in obtaining these large amount of disclosure, the tribunal, with the parties, could have worked together to find a solution. The respondent has denied this opportunity to everyone and forced the tribunal, to put it bluntly, into a mode of damage control.”
“The lengths to which this government will go to avoid accountability and responsibility is simply astonishing,” said Liberal Aboriginal Affairs critic Carolyn Bennett. “Their priorities are crystal clear in this case: political damage control is more important to them than the wellbeing of Aboriginal children. Canadians should and will be disgusted by this.”
Now months behind schedule, the hearings into the discrimination case will resume in September.
Cindy Blackstock supports a call for an independent investigation but only on certain conditions.
“I would very much welcome an independent review so long as it respects the integrity of the tribunal process,” said Blackstock. “It is very concerning to me that in a case impacting 161,000 children that the Government of Canada has repeatedly tried to derail the tribunal hearings using procedural technicalities and within the past month has been found responsible for violating both the Privacy Act and tribunal disclosure rules in relation to the child welfare case.”
APTN asked the department of Aboriginal Affairs to respond to the allegations leveled by the tribunal panel. Instead, the following statement was sent by the department.
“Our Government believes that the best way to ensure First Nations children and families get the support and services they need is by working together – with First Nations, provinces and territories. To date, the government has provided 158,000 pages of relevant material to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and we will continue to abide by their rules and procedures by ensuring that all documents relevant to the proceedings are provided.”