Canada has the answers to stop discriminating against First Nations children as ordered by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal and now is the time to do it says Cindy Blackstock.
“They actually have solutions on the books and they’ve been ordered implement those solutions – they just have to commit to actually doing it,” said Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. “We know that governments do complicated things all the time, for example, with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and everything else like that. So this can be done. They just have to keep focused and actually get the job done.”
The caring society is one of two parties that launched a discrimination case against Canada in 2007 for underfunding on-reserve child welfare services. There is also a component called Jordan’s Principle – a program where Ottawa and the provinces work to provide immediate medical services to First Nations children and then work out who owes what later – regardless of where they live in the country.
The federal government fought the case at every turn including turning to the courts to have it dismissed – including challenging the authority of the commissioners at the tribunal who made a number of rulings against Canada.
Federal lawyers lost every challenge.
It forced the federal government to negotiate a settlement in two class action lawsuits – eventually settling on a $23 billion award for children who were victims of the on-reserve welfare system – and their caregivers. It’s estimated that 300,000 children, parents, grandparents and caregivers who live on reserve in every province and the Yukon. They will receive a minimum of $40,000 each.
That deal was approved by a federal court judge on Tuesday.
Ottawa has promised another $20 billion to restructure the whole on-reserve child welfare system.
But Blackstock said despite the historic win against the federal government, discrimination is still taking place.
“We’re seeing challenges with Canada’s compliance with existing orders [from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal], particularly with Jordan’s Principle,” Blackstock told Nation to Nation host Fraser Needham. “It’s difficult to get through to make a request on their 24-hour line, we’re seeing long delays in determining cases including even urgent cases.
“In addition to that we have some concerns about the way Canada calculates prevention funding for First Nations children, youth and families and their approach to capital and post majority services.”
Post majority services are programs for youth in care who are transitioning to adulthood.
“Canada agreed to fund these services up to age 26 but they have now put in an arbitrary end date of March 2024. This is absurd – Canada can’t just end orders because it wants to,” Blackstock said in a follow-up email.
According to a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hadju, “funding is stable to 2026-27 and will not be phased out in 2024.”
Other child welfare lawsuits filed
The federal government isn’t finished getting sued over its child welfare policies. There are another seven lawsuits against Canada, several provinces representing Inuit, Métis and off-reserve First Nations children for discriminatory practices in provincial systems.
“There’s really been no conversation yet with any of the governments about settling the cases and that’s quite disturbing for a number of reasons,” said David Sterns, one of the lawyers working on the lawsuits. “The cases that were brought out against the provinces really cry out for a resolution in the same way as the case that was settled [Tuesday]. Unfortunately, though, there haven’t been as many voices expressed in support of those kids. These are Indigenous kids who are every bit as Indigenous as the First Nations kids who will get the benefit of [Tuesday’s] settlement.”
Sterns said that he’s not clear how many children could be eligible for compensation but he said the number will likely be in the range of children in the cases that were approved on Tuesday and it will “take a significant amount of money” to settle.
One of the class actions has already been certified. In 2022, Cheyenne Stonechild’s lawsuit was certified. Stonechild was taken from her parents when she was eight years old and transferred to more than a dozen foster homes – none of them had Indigenous guardians.
A second, based in Nunavik in northern Quebec is waiting on a decision from a judge. The claim alleges that Canada and Quebec didn’t “adequately fund child services for indigenous children … implemented funding structures and policies that prioritized removing Indigenous children from their homes instead of providing Indigenous parents with services to care for their children at home, and failed to consider placing Indigenous children in customary care.”
The class action covers all Inuit children in Nunavik who were removed from their homes who were under the age of 18 since Nov. 11, 1975, all Inuit children who were denied prompt access to “essential service” since that date and all off-reserve First Nations, Inuit and Métis who were removed from their homes while under the age of 18 since 1992. The claim also includes caregiving parents and grandparents.
Careful what you say
The conflict between Israel, Hamas and Palestinian people has triggered a number of discussions in Canada about how to support people caught up in conflict.
If you look at social media, a number of Indigenous people who use various sites have a lot to say about Canada’s position – and statements from various provinces.
One thing that Veldon Coburn, a professor from McGill University and a member of the Algonquin Pikwakanagan Nation near Ottawa, noticed was that Canada unequivocally backed the state of Israel.
“For some Indigenous peoples we understand, or at least view the situation of the military occupation of Palestinians and the long-standing human rights abuses in what is deemed the world’s largest open-air prison as something akin to the colonization of Indigenous peoples here. So, there’s a little bit of affinity with people who are under that sort of subjugation.”
You can hear the full interview with Coburn online.