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Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. Photo by Richard Siemens, copyright 2014, University of Alberta

Good neighbours

Politicians will only do whatever Canadians support — and accept

By Dennis Gruending

Since the June release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s preliminary report on the history of Indian residential schools, there has been heightened talk about how non-Indigenous Canadians can become better neighbours to those who are indigenous. Well, a ruling issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) on Jan. 26 provides yet another illustration of the shared road ahead.

The CHRT was responding to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which — along with the Assembly of First Nations — initiated a complaint in 2007. Although the process was long and arduous, the tribunal eventually ruled that Ottawa's funding formulas provide between 22 and 34 percent less to child welfare services for First Nations people. That's compared to what provincial governments pay for similar services provided to other children. It’s a discriminatory practice that has gone on for as long as anyone can remember. 

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Child and Family Caring Society, has been the most prominent advocate in the case. Blackstock says that the discrimination means services are fewer — and often of lesser quality — on reserves. And there’s another consequence of discriminatory funding models: it creates an incentive to place children in foster care. As a result, there are more First Nations children in foster care today than there were at the height of the residential school era, according to Blackstock. The excellent Globe and Mail columnist Andre Picard writes, “[This] is a continuation of racist (and in some cases genocidal) policies like the Indian Act, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.”

Blackstock estimates that the Harper government spent more than $5 million dollars fighting the technicalities of her group’s allegations before the tribunal. But it didn’t stop there. Government employees were ordered to collect personal information about her and spy on her. In response, Blackstock submitted a complaint to Canada’s privacy commissioner, who concluded that, indeed, her privacy had been invaded. She then launched a second complaint concerning the harassment by government officials. In 2015, the Aboriginal Affairs department was ordered to pay her $20,000 for the pain and suffering that they caused her. Blackstock gave the money to children’s charities.

Regarding the funding of child welfare services, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has the power to order Ottawa to end its discriminatory practices. But it has not yet done so. Meanwhile, the initial response from Liberal cabinet ministers to the ruling has been positive. During the federal election campaign last fall, the Liberals promised to work with First Nations to tackle their many challenges. They also promised to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Despite these expressions of goodwill, however, politicians will only do whatever Canadians support — and accept. And that’s where good neighbours can help.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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