Trudeau Liberals forced to back NDP motion on FN child welfare, announce intervention by human rights commission

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has agreed to hold discussions with federal officials on plans to reform the First Nation child welfare system

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Canadian Human Rights Commission has agreed to hold discussions with federal officials on the current pace and plans for reforming the First Nation child welfare system as was demanded by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, says Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

Ottawa previously refused mediation twice on the issue, the last offer came a little over a month ago.

The announcement came mere hours after a letter from Sen. Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation, forced the Liberal government to support an NDP House of Commons motion calling on Ottawa to comply with the a ruling from the human rights tribunal to end discrimination against First Nation children.

Bennett made the announcement Monday afternoon shortly before question period in a joint scrum with Health Minister Jane Philpott.

“The Canadian Human Rights Commission has agreed to facilitate discussions to make sure we get quickly and urgently to the issue of ending the discrimination, but also reforming the system,” said Bennett. “The reason we want to sit down with the Canadian Human Rights Commission is to be able to stop talking past one another. We need to sit down, all in one room and get this done as quickly as possible.”

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hears cases referred to it by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The commission essentially administers the Canadian Human Rights Act and the tribunal enforces it.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled earlier this year that Ottawa was discriminating against First Nation children by underfunding on-reserve child welfare services. The tribunal ordered Ottawa to immediately overhaul the system and increase funding. It also called on Ottawa to fully implement Jordan’s Principle.

Since the ruling, the tribunal issued two compliance order against the federal government over the slow pace of its promised reforms.

The NDP MP Charlie Angus tabled a motion in the House of Commons last week calling for the Liberal government to immediately invest an additional $155 million for on-reserve child welfare services, implement the full definition of Jordan’s Principle, comply fully with the human rights tribunal’s order, stop fighting Indigenous families in court over payment for health services and releasing all documents related to the overhaul of Jordan’s Principle.

Jordan’s Principle deals jurisdictional disputes between Ottawa and the provinces over who pays for health services for Indigenous children. Under Jordan’s Principle, Ottawa would agree to settle the jurisdictional issues after the health care needs are met. The tribunal ordered Ottawa to fully implement

Jordan’s Principle to cover all health issues. At the moment, Ottawa is applying a definition that covers children with disability, which has impacted 900 First Nation children to date, according to Health Canada officials.

The Liberal government pulled a 180 degree turn to support the NDP motion after government MPs criticized it during a debate in the House of Commons last week.

During the debate, Liberal MPs took particular aim at the $155 million the NDP motion calls on the Liberal government to invest in additional resources for on-reserve child welfare.

Yvonne Jones, parliamentary secretary, called the number “arbitrary.”

Thunder Bay Liberal MP Don Rusnak said, “Throwing money at the problem is not going to solve it.”

Adam Vaughan, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, also questioned how the NDP came up with the number.

“What will the precise share be for the community…out of the $155 million, since the NDP has come up with such a precise formula down to the child?” said Vaughan.

Cindy Blackstock, president of the Child and Family Caring Society, said during a press conference Monday that the dollar figure is the current funding shortfall facing on-reserve child welfare agencies based on research that included 90,000 internal Indigenous Affairs documents and reports. Blackstock, backed by the Assembly of First Nations, launched the successful human rights complaint against Ottawa over its underfunding of child welfare services on-reserve.

Blackstock said the dollar figure was submitted to the human rights tribunal with 160 pages of spreadsheets showing where the money would go, how it would be distributed and how it would immediately impact children. She said the federal department’s own forensic numbers expert’s tabulations came within 1 per cent of the shortfall determined by her organization.

“I have provided this to the department at least six months ago,” said Blackstock. “I believe this is a very, very conservative number, it will come nowhere near meeting the overall process and depth of discrimination.”

Blackstock said she doesn’t understand why Bennett wants more consultation on the issue since the department has done numerous studies on the issue dating back to 1967.

The Liberals switched their opposition to the NDP motion after the letter from Sinclair surfaced publicly. Sinclair called on the Liberals to support the NDP motion, saying it dovetails with the TRC’s calls to action which included several aimed at child welfare services for First Nation children.

“Canada’s discriminatory policies have led to greater failed and failing interventions into the lives of Indigenous families than residential schools and serious changes must be undertaken,” said Sinclair. “The failures of provincial child welfare systems combined with the failure of the federal government to recognize its fiduciary responsibilities were at the forefront of the calls to action of the TRC.”

Bennett tweeted Monday morning, about three hours after Sinclair’s letter became public, saying her government would support the NDP motion.

It is unclear if the Bennett’s department will change its current plan to launch consultations on improving on-reserve child welfare services once the motion passes. Bennett recently appointed Cynthia Wesley-Esquimax as her ministerial representative on the file to gather input from the provinces and child welfare advocates.

Angus said he hoped the Liberal government would finally act on the issue.

“We are pleased to hear the government is going to support this motion,” said Angus, during the press conference. “But I want to see action. This is not a motion that is NDP versus Liberal, this is every single parliamentarian from every part of Canada standing up and calling on the government to stop fighting children.”

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