The former minister of Indigenous Services finds it hard to believe that the federal government is fighting a human rights tribunal order to compensate First Nations children scooped into a purposely under-funded child welfare system.
“I think it’s a big disappointment,” Philpott said, earlier this week while taking a break from campaigning as an independent in the riding of Markham-Stouffville in the federal election.
“It’s something that the government has been aware of for some time and it strikes me as incomprehensible why they would be reviewing this decision.”
The federal government isn’t just asking the Federal court to judicially review the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s Sept. 6 order to pay the maximum amount of compensation to children in care and their families.
Ottawa wants the compensation order squashed.
Trudeau ended up surprising many during the English leaders’ debate Oct. 7 when he was challenged by the NDP and Greens for filing the judicial review.
“We recognize the tribunal’s ruling that says that children need to be compensated and we will be compensating them,” he said.
“But we’ve also moved forward to end the tragedies by moving forward on legislation that keeps kids in care in their communities with their language with their culture.”
But Trudeau didn’t say how that is going to happen.
“These families have been devastated and the consequences of the traumas they’ve endured based on having children taken away and having agencies not adequately supported,” said Philpott.
Philpott is the former minister of Indigenous Services Canada and the first one to hold the position after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau split the former Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada department into two in August 2017. Philpott was shuffled in from Health Canada and Carolynn Bennett took over the new Crown-Indigenous Relations department that would focus on such things as land claims.
Philpott would provide the services under the Indian Act in her new role.
She would also see firsthand that the state of on-reserve child welfare was in a poor state across the country.
But Trudeau’s cabinet of ministers had known since Jan. 26, 2016 how bad it was as that’s the date the tribunal made its landmark decision finding Canada guilty of purposely underfunding on-reserve child welfare for decades. The tribunal ordered Trudeau to stop the discrimination immediately.
It would take much longer before Trudeau even made an attempt.
His first move was hiring Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux in August 2016 to travel the country to meet with Indigenous agencies and report back what they said. She was a failed Liberal candidate in the 2011 federal election. She is running again for the Liberals.
APTN News would break that Wesley-Esquimaux was allocated more than $400,000, according to government documents, to do this work.
In September 2017, she filed her report saying what everyone already knew: On-reserve child welfare was in need of serious reform.
“I thought that report was completely unnecessary,” said Cindy Blackstock on Nation to Nation airing Thursday night after the APTN National News.
“We already knew about the problem. The government likes to do that. They like to fund studies so it looks like they are doing something.”
It was Blackstock who led the fight against Canada to level the playing field for First Nations children, as well as the Assembly of First Nations.
Her historic victory took over a decade, that included former Stephen Harper government trying get human rights complaint dismissed in Federal court.
So while it took eight months, after the ruling, for Trudeau to hire Wesley-Esquimaux and another year for her to complete her report APTN recently reported that 48 Indigenous children connected to Indigenous child welfare agencies in Ontario died during 2016 and 2017.
“How many of those children would have been alive if Canada addressed the funding inequalities in First Nations child welfare back in 2000 when we first identified it?” said Blackstock.
“These children, most of them weren’t even born yet. Had these services been in place, the prevention services, the culturally-based services I think most of these children would still be with us.”
It would take multiple non-compliance orders before Trudeau increased funding for Indigenous agencies on Feb. 21, 2018, when the first payment went out to an agency, as the tribunal ordered Canada to retroactively reimburse agencies back to 2016.
APTN found that 102 Indigenous children connected to child welfare in Ontario died in five years between 2013 and 2017. The official numbers for 2018 have not be publicly released. But APTN can say at least four more children died in care in 2018.
“Unfortunately, it’s not particularly surprising,” said Philpott of APTN‘s report, Death as Expected.
“It validates what we have always known.”
Philpott was asked if she felt Trudeau tasked her to run the new department because the handling of child welfare up to that point had been considered a failure.
“I don’t know for sure what all the motivations were. There were some serious issues needing leadership. I was honoured to be given the portfolio of Indigenous services. I think it’s a huge task,” said Philpott.
Philpott said a trip to Manitoba about month into her job drove home how bad child welfare was there, where in some years an Indigenous baby is taken from families every day.
She called an “emergency meeting” that happened in February 2018 where agencies and stakeholders gathered in Ottawa to discuss what needed to be done.
From that gathering the framework of new Indigenous child welfare legislation was developed and worked on throughout the year.
But by September of 2018 it’s now known that Trudeau was at odds with former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould over the infamous SNC-Lavalin scandal first broke by the Globe and Mail‘s Robert Fife.
Trudeau was pressuring Wilson-Raybould to intervene in a criminal case against the Quebec engineering firm which she refused to do.
In fact, Wilson-Raybould wanted to talk more about the government’s dwindling attention to Indigenous rights.
It all came to a head by early January 2019 when Wilson-Raybould was shuffled to Veteran Affairs, refusing to first move to Indigenous Services, and Philpott was also moved over to the Treasury Board.
Left holding the Indigenous Services file was Seamus O’Ragen who had limited experience with Indigenous people or their inherent rights.
Caught in the middle of all this was the child welfare legislation that was delayed by weeks before finally being tabled and rushed through Parliament.
“I would say it moved slower than many people would have liked. Ultimately it finally did get tabled. There are pieces of that that some people think still need to be improved upon,” said Philpott.
That includes funding, which is not guaranteed in Bill C-92.
Skip ahead to last week and Canada was once again wrestling with First Nations over funding – this time it was about how much First Nations children and their families should get for the damaged caused by Canada purposely under-funding on-reserve care.
The tribunal ordered each kid get $40,000, the maximum it could award.
The federal government wants that order dismissed saying it’s going to cost upwards of $6 billion by 2020.
“I think that is another sign of them not accepting blame for their own behaviour,” said Blackstock. “I couldn’t imagine if a decision came against any organization I was with that we were wilfully and recklessly discriminating against little kids in ways that contributed to their deaths and separations from families. I would, first of all, feel horrified about what we have done and second of all, more importantly, move heaven and earth to make sure it doesn’t happen again and yet we haven’t seen any of that from the government.”
Nation to Nation also speaks to Dr. Kim Snow, a child welfare expert that analyzed data for APTN in the Death as Expected story.
As well, two long-time Crown wards give their opinions on what they think about Canada fighting them in court.