In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a human rights complaint against the Canadian Federal government, alleging that Canada’s failure to provide equitable and culturally based child welfare services to First Nations children on-reserve amounts to discrimination on the basis of race and ethnic origin. In January, the Tribunal ruled against the government. In this piece, Andrea Auger of the Caring Society reflects on the importance and implications of this decision.
For First Nations kids, a step towards equality
When the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (the Caring Society) and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) filed this human rights complaint against the government back in 2007, it was a last resort. Both organizations had worked for years with the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) to develop solutions to ensure First Nations child and family agencies received enough resources to deliver culturally appropriate child welfare services on reserves.
The government failed to implement any of the reports’ recommended solutions. As a result, even more First Nations children entered the child welfare system. In fact, agencies were incentivised to remove children from their homes rather than provide funding for prevention services to help them stay safely with their families.
January 26, 2016, was a celebratory day for First Nations people in Canada. After nine long years, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the Government of Canada guilty of discrimination against 163,000 First Nations children because it funded on-reserve child welfare services inadequately and inequitably, and failed to fully implement Jordan’s Principle.
What is Jordan’s Principle?
Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle named in memory of Jordan River Anderson. Jordan was a First Nations child from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba who was born with complex medical needs. Jordan spent more than two years in hospital unnecessarily while the Province of Manitoba and the federal government argued over who should pay for his at home care. Jordan died in hospital at the age of 5, having never spent a day in a family home. Implementing Jordan’s Principle means making sure First Nations children are not left waiting for services they desperately need, or are denied services that are available to other children. This includes services in education, health, childcare, recreation, and culture and language. Learn more at www.jordansprinciple.ca.
What happens now?
The federal government has yet to follow through on the Tribunal’s order to put an immediate stop to discrimination in funding. Instead, it announced increased allocations for First Nations child welfare in its 2016 Budget including $634.8 million over five years, with an initial investment of $71 million for 2016-17.
This may seem like a significant improvement, but these numbers actually fall $42.3 million short of what INAC itself said was needed to address the gaps in service that already existed. The number is even farther from the $200 million the Caring Society hoped would be allocated for immediate relief while INAC worked on longer term solutions for improving the funding formulas. Finally, the largest part of the $634.8 million is scheduled to be released in 2021-22, after the next federal election. If a different party wins the election, it could mean vulnerable children lose that promised funding.
Each of the parties to the Tribunal case provided recommendations or “remedies” for moving forward, including funding recommendations. After consultation with the parties, the Tribunal will decide on the final remedies. Once given, the Tribunal’s decisions can be enforced by the Federal Court. The parties were scheduled to submit detailed remedies as of March 31, 2016. Keep an eye on www.fnwitness.ca for updates.
Although January 26 was a victory, Canada still has a long way to go to ensure that First Nations children have equitable opportunities to grow up safely in their communities, go to good schools and receive quality education, be healthy, and learn about and be proud of their unique histories, languages, and cultures.
I know firsthand that there are caring people and organizations across the country who are committed to standing as allies to First Nations communities, and to finding their place in reconciliation. Out of personal curiosity and a genuine desire for people to understand the concept in meaningful ways, I always ask people what reconciliation means to them. Some think of it in a religious context, while others understand it as healing or relationship building.
Growing up with my family in Thunder Bay, I was taught about responsibilities to the next seven generations. Because of this teaching, I see reconciliation as looking after those future generations by taking action now to make sure we can care for them after we’ve passed. With that in mind, how can we all take actions that are meaningful and make a real difference?
A vision of a truly reconciled Canada
At the Caring Society, we believe that change is happening and reconciliation is all of us. Each person can take peaceful and respectful actions to help make Canada better for First Nations children and their families. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action offer a wealth of inspiration for us to find our place individually and collectively in the process of reconciliation. Let’s imagine a Canada where we all take action to stand with First Nations children. We’d be so much closer to a truly reconciled Canada built on a foundation of of fairness, justice and equality for all.