In the wake of a landmark ruling on human rights and indigenous children, advocates are demanding that Canada take immediate action to fix a failing system that is causing tens of thousands of First Nations children on reserve to suffer solely because of their race.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled on January 26 that the federal government racially discriminates against First Nations children by giving them significantly less funding for child welfare services than the rest of the population, despite their having a greater need. The tribunal ordered the federal government to “cease its discriminatory practices” by reforming relevant legislation and programs. Indigenous leaders and human rights organizations called the decision a watershed moment and a potential catalyst for eradicating inequities in First Nations health, education, housing and clean water.
Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett have promised to work with First Nations leaders and communities, as well as provinces and territories, to equalize both funding and social outcomes. Advocates said they are keeping a close eye on the government to make sure it follows through. Urgent action is required, they said, because 163,000 First Nations children are still in jeopardy.
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society executive director Cindy Blackstock, who first launched the complaint to the tribunal with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) nine years ago, said the government could take its first steps right now—from information already available in the organization’s database.
“I welcome the remarks made by the government,” Blackstock said after the ruling. “But children only have one childhood. They can’t wait for studies.”
She added in a later statement that Canadians must now keep their government accountable.
“Racial discrimination against children must not be tolerated,” Blackstock said. “It is vital that Canadians watch the government's actions closely to ensure the ruling is implemented and inequalities in other First Nations children's services such as education, health and basics like water and housing are fully addressed."
UNICEF Canada said that necessary next steps include funding preventative services to keep children out of foster care, establishing an indigenous child welfare agency, and creating an office of a national commissioner for children and youth. UNICEF Canada’s Chief Policy Advisor Marv Bernstein said while government has a key role, the well-being of First Nations children is everyone’s responsibility.
He said there must be immediate action after a lengthy litigation process and agreed that it must encompass other areas along with child welfare.
“Nine years is an eternity in the childhood of a girl or boy in critical need of services and supports that have been systematically denied throughout their short lives,” he said, adding that the decision “is a watershed moment and must serve as a catalyst to end inequities on all levels—not just in child welfare services—including the rights of Canada's aboriginal children to health, education, housing and clean water.”
Frontline child and family workers echoed the same call for action and are asking to be included in the government’s next steps to repair the broken child welfare system. In Saskatchewan, Yorkton Tribal Council Child and Family Services and Touchwood Child and Family Services issued a joint statement that said interim measures must be determined to end discriminatory practices.
“For several years we have asked the federal and provincial governments to work collaboratively with us. The panel re-affirms this request and it is time for action in Saskatchewan,” the statement said. “Daily challenges include a current need for a moratorium on family court applications, adoptions of our children, and a First Nations advocate who specializes in on-reserve child population.”
Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services on Vancouver Island echoed those assertions.
“What is required now is urgent action by both the federal and provincial governments working in full partnership with First Nations,” said Robina Thomas of Kw’umut Lelum’s board of directors in a statement. “There is no time to sit around and talk while children are discriminated against and suffer.”
First Nations leaders also joined the call for action.
“I call on the federal government to take immediate action in implementing fair and equitable funding provisions to ensure our children are cared for adequately and to meet the needs of our communities,” said AFN B.C. Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson. “Now is the time for governments to take action in partnership with First Nations in addressing real and substantial change for the improvement of child welfare in our communities.”
Taking it even further out, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Vice Chief Kimberley Jonathan called the ruling “a great opportunity for the Liberal government and the Province of Saskatchewan to truly implement the United Nations Declaration of Rights on Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation of Commission Calls for Action in not only its legislation but in its everyday practices and policies”—something that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised during his campaign.
“We want to see real change for our First Nations children both on reserve and off reserve. Prevention, resources and adequate funding is only the beginning,” Jonathan said in a statement. “We can see from the tribunal’s decision that there is much more work that needs to be done. It is time this country and our home province really takes human rights seriously, especially when it comes to our most vulnerable groups of peoples, which includes our indigenous women and those living with disabilities. By honoring our First Nations children we become a richer nation.”