After a six-year wait, the federal government appears before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Monday as court proceedings begin into allegations of discrimination against First Nations families on reserves by underfunding child welfare services.
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations to the Canadian Human Rights Commission first filed the complaint in 2007.
In a statement to the CBC, executive director with First Nations child caring society Cindy Blackstock, said the complaint was “filed as a last resort after successive governments have failed to implement the solutions that would help First Nations children stay safely in their families.”
The case was then referred to Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
“There’s been an awareness for some time that there are discrepancies in funding in children’s services, particularly in child welfare, between kids who live in aboriginal communities reserves,” Kenn Richard, vice-president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society told Humber News.
”There’s quite a contradiction between the funding levels there and the funding levels typically found for child welfare funded by the provincial government,” he said.
Research cited by the First Nations child caring society said children on reserves receive “78 cents on the dollar” or 22 per cent less funding for services than those who live off reserve.
“What we’re trying to see is improvement in the quality of life for aboriginal kids,” said Richard. “It’s not about an attack on the Federal government, it’s about holding the federal government accountable. And we believe Canadians are concerned about aboriginal kids.”
The issue of funding stems back to the Indian Act which says funding health, education, police services and child welfare on reserves, fall under federal jurisdiction, all of which care categorized as provincial jurisdiction off reserve.
The CBC reports the federal government has tried to have the case dismissed on the grounds that provincial and federal funding is not comparable.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has intervened in the case on the legal question of how “discrimination” should be defined and proven, arguing for fair access to the human rights system.
“There’s not nearly enough money for these least disruptive measures to that would help families keep children in their homes where possible,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the Equality Program with the CCLA.
“(The First Nations child caring society) is alleging there are more first nations children living away from their families in the care of child welfare authorities than there were at the height of the residential schools program,” she said.
Mendelsohn said their main message is that the allegations are heard and a remedy to the situation be issued by the Human Rights Tribunal.
The hearings start just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed New Brunswick MP Bernard Valcourt to the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development portfolio on Feb. 22.
This tribunal will be one of his first major tests as Minister.
In a statement to Humber News, the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development reiterated its stance that First Nations issues should be directly dealt with between the provinces, territories and federal government.
“The Government of Canada believes that the best way to ensure First Nations children and families get the support and services they need is by working together – with First Nations, provinces and territories – and not through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal,” said Geneviève Guibert, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Canada in an emailed statement to Humber News.
“The Government of Canada will continue to work with First Nations to ensure that children and families have the supports they need to lead healthy, safe lives,” she said.
According to APTN, the tribunal that began hearings today is expected to last 14 weeks.