(The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal says it will release its ruling on the discrimination case against Canada before the end of January)
APTN National News
The woman behind a Canadian human rights tribunal case alleging the Canadian government discriminates against First Nations children in the care of child welfare is preparing for the ruling.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, along with the Assembly of First Nations, filed the human rights complaint in 2007.
The ruling, expected before the end of January, will be a historic one for First Nations children said Blackstock.
In an email sent to a number of agencies across the country, Blackstock outlined what is at stake and how best to get the message across to Canadians.
“We absolutely are expecting a ruling in our favour just based on the evidence that was put before the tribunal,” said Blackstock. “Not only are the funding policies of the federal government discriminatory in child welfare but also its inequitable and flawed implementation of Jordan’s Principle.”
Jordan’s Principle was motion that the House of Commons voted unanimously to pass in 2007. It called on the Canada to resolve jurisdictional disputes within, and between governments, about payment for government services provided to First Nations children for any health needs.
According to Blackstock, this is the first time that a developed country has been on trial regarding allegations of racial discrimination against First Nations children before a body that has the power to make a binding order. Blackstock said the coming ruling will set a precedent to address other areas of funding shortfalls in First Nations communities.
“A decision in our favor will only be really successful if we see the lives of children and their families changing for the better,” said Blackstock.
Estimates by the Canadian government add up to a $108 million per year shortfall in funding for on-reserve child welfare agencies plus a 3 per cent per year inflation rate increase. These amounts are minimum requirements to bring agencies up to par, said Blackstock, however, additional funds for other needs such as agency infrastructure and transportation aren’t included.
“I have been to many Indian Affairs offices and none of them have black mold infestation,” she said. “I’ve been to many First Nation agencies where it is a problem. When we have situations that don’t even support employees, let alone ensuring that children are safe in those spaces, that’s a real problem.”
The Alberta Child Advocate director Del Graff is also looking forward to the upcoming ruling.
“We are very hopeful that the ruling will be favourable to the interest of Aboriginal kids and their families. People who look at this issue almost invariably agree that there needs to be a change in how child welfare is done,” said Graff.
Graff is leading a special report about the over-representation of Aboriginal children in foster care in Alberta. Although only nine percent of the youth population in Alberta is of Aboriginal ancestry, 69 percent of kids in care in Alberta are Aboriginal.
Graff is hoping the report, currently entering the writing phase, will entice governments to look at creating a serious partnership with Aboriginal communities to improve child welfare services.
Graff is also the vice president of the Canadian Council of the Child and Youth Advocate, an organization that recently made commitments in regards to the rights and interests of young people at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
Child welfare is at the top of the TRC’s list on calls to action and called upon governments to take steps to reduce the number of Aboriginal children in care.
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Graff recognizes the connection between residential school survivors and Aboriginal children who grow up in the foster care system.
“Certainly I see the impact of children who are displaced and don’t know where they belong and lose a sense of who they are in terms of identity. Particularly when they spend their lives in care,” said Graff. “That is of concern and is concerning to all Canadians. This isn’t an issue of First Nation communities or First Nations children it’s an issue that involves Canada. I think the TRC put that front and center.”
Despite a lack of resources for additional support some First Nations child welfare agencies are seeing success.
Valerie Woods, the director of the Wah-Koh-To-Win Child Care Society in Saddlelake, Alta., said her community is gaining ground with maintaining the number of children in care via working to keep children close to home.
“Often time’s kids are aging out faster than we are putting kids into care. So we’re reducing our caseload,” said Woods.
“The reason why we maintain the same number of cases is because we are repatriating, we are bringing kids home currently receiving services from provincially run agencies,” she said.
However, Woods admits that they could be doing a much better job, and working to reduce the number of kids in care if given the same resources as off-reserve agencies.
It’s a goal that would be easier to attain if the upcoming ruling sees the release of equitable funding.
While in opposition, the Liberal party admonished the ruling Conservatives often for making Blackstock and the AFN take their complaint to the Tribunal and for its conduct there.
It’s not clear whether the now governing Liberals will abide by any ruling the Tribunal releases.
But in a statement to APTN National News from Indigenous Affairs, Minister Carolyn Bennett acknowledged the work Blackstock has done on the issue.
“Her commitment to First Nations children and youth will lead us on this important work of reconcilation by improving the well-being and opportunities of First Nations children across this country,” the statement said.
“In discussions with First Nations, I ahve made it clear that we ahve to egin work on an overhaul to the Indigenous child welfare system.”
Bennett also said she plans to work with Finance Minister Bill Morneau to discuss the new fiscal relationship with Indigenous communities.
There are variances in the capacities of First Nation agencies across the country as they ready for the results of the ruling, said Blackstock.
She said some are ready to hit the ground running as soon as funding becomes available, but others have not yet had the opportunity to consult with their communities to understand how to develop services to meet their needs.
“For some communities that’s going to be the first step, for them to come together and collectively re-dream what it means to have a healthy childhood,” said Blackstock.
She’s hopeful the new Liberal government will take a less contentious stance on the issue than the previous government.
“If I look at the (new) government’s statements certainly there’s room for optimism, but I’m a person who judges things by the actions and again at the level of kids and at this point- nothing has changed for kids on reserve. That’s my marker of when we should feel optimism- when we see changes.
We’re talking about children here who are the most vulnerable members of our communities. To me they should always be at the front of the line when it comes to priorities.”
Blackstock requested a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Indigenous Affairs minister shortly after the October election.
She has not been contacted.