News / Canada

Trudeau government on notice in First Nations child welfare dispute: Blackstock

OTTAWA — A First Nations advocacy group has asked the Canadian Human Rights Commission to begin a Federal Court process that could lead to contempt proceedings against the Liberal government for its treatment of children living on reserves.

The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society requested the commission's help as part of an effort to compel the government to abide by the findings of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

"We have to go to Federal Court and we will have to apply for a contempt order," said Cindy Blackstock, the head of the society and a longtime champion of First Nations child welfare.

"It is something I was hoping we would never have to do."

In order to do so, the caring society, which was one of the original complainants who brought the case to the tribunal, must ask the commission to seek that the decision be registered in Federal Court, said David Taylor, the society's legal counsel.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is a quasi-judicial body, and the Canadian Human Rights Act spells out that enforcement requires the court's involvement, he added.

The tribunal initially found in January that the government had been discriminating against First Nations children in its delivery of child welfare services on reserve.

Two subsequent rulings ordered the government to update its policies and procedures to comply with its original findings.

The federal government is racially discriminating against First Nations children as a matter of law and it is  failing to comply with legal orders, Blackstock added.

"You have a group of children who the federal government consciously decides are getting less public services than every other group in the country," she said. "That, to me, is pretty clear cut."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould welcomed the tribunal's January findings, Blackstock noted, adding she was hopeful at the time of the decision.

"That didn't turn out to the be the case so now we are going to have to take it up another level," she said.

"What I can't figure out is, what are the kids losing to? What is a higher priority to the government than fixing racial discrimination against 163,000 children — The children who are the children and grandchildren of the residential school survivors."

The federal government Canada is committed to overhauling the child welfare system for First Nations, Bennett insisted Monday under pressure from opposition New Democrats in question period.

The government will work with First Nations communities, organizations and frontline service providers to improve its overall structure, she said in French.

Last week, Bennett's office said it was reviewing the finding from the tribunal issued last week.

The image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government being taken to Federal Court for refusing to respond to systemic discrimination against indigenous children boggles the mind, said NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus.

"The government continues to follow the same refusal and denial of service to children who are extremely vulnerable," he said, pointing to the case of a young Alberta woman.

The federal government has spent $32,000 fighting in court fighting her as opposed to spending $8,000 on her dental treatments, Angus added.

"The prime minister made such clear commitments, he was firm that they were going to create a new relationship," he said.

Blackstock has repeatedly challenged the government for promising $71 million this year for immediate relief for child welfare, pegging the actual shortfall to be at least $200 million.

Commitments contained within the federal budget have already been deemed "clearly insufficient" by the tribunal, Blackstock said.

"They need to stop defending the indefensible," she said. "They keep raising up Budget 2016. The tribunal has issued two failure-to-comply orders since they announced Budget 2016."

She also said the government needs to provide more information on a July announcement on "Jordan's Principle" — a policy named after a five-year-old boy with complex needs who died in hospital in 2005 after a protracted two-year battle between the federal and Manitoba governments over his home care costs.

The government has said it will provide up $382 million over three years in new funding.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version moved Sept. 19 said the Canadian Human Rights Commission was planning to ask a Federal Court judge to find the Liberal government in contempt over its treatment of children on reserves.