By Jennifer King & Cindy Blackstock on March 23, 2017
As the federal government prepares to spend half a billion dollars to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, First Nations in northern Ontario are mourning the loss of three young girls to suicide. These tragedies could have been prevented if Canada provided equitable mental health and other children’s services on reserve.
For over 10 years, Canada has known about the discrimination in child welfare, education, and other public services on reserve as well as the resulting harm to First Nations children. The government has been challenged on its lack of progress in providing the services other children receive as a matter of course. In response, they like to cite their century-long pattern of “engaging” with partners and “tough economic times” as barriers to action.
Is Canada so broke that the national treasury needs to rely on racial discrimination against children as a cost saving measure? What are First Nations children losing out to? With $500 million set aside, it would seem that Canada’s birthday party is more of a priority.
The belief that First Nations should make do with less is so engrained in government culture that Canada would rather break the law than cease this policy of racial discrimination against children. In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the federal government to be discriminating against over 163,000 First Nations kids. They had underfunded child welfare services on reserve and failed to implement Jordan’s Principle to ensure equitable access to public services. The tribunal found that Canada’s chronic underfunding of children’s services was incentivizing the removal of First Nations children from their families and widening the disadvantage sown by residential schools. It also found that the government had been aware of the situation for decades but failed to take any significant action.
Canada accepted the orders without appeal, yet little has changed. Despite lofty pronouncements of an “historic investment,” monies allotted to First Nations child and family services in the 2016 federal budget fell far short of the operational need. Old approaches have been given new labels, with predicable results: the discrimination continues while governments look for sympathy for its “good efforts” and “hard work.” The tribunal is so unsatisfied by Canada’s failure to implement its orders that it has issued two non-compliance orders.
Canada refused to comply with the tribunal’s legally binding order. This underscores the importance of Canadians rising up in greater numbers to demand an end to the government’s unlawful and discriminatory conduct against children. A slumbering public is systemic discrimination’s best friend. We need to stop waiting for government action; we need to demand it.
Because there are solutions. There are decades of recommendations on the books to guide both immediate and long-term change. At the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, we often say that governments do not create change, they respond to it. Start by writing to your MP to demand government compliance with the tribunal orders. More information about the immediate actions Canada can take to resolve the inequities can be found at fnwitness.ca.
On July 1, we ask that you celebrate Canada for the country it could be. If this is truly a country founded on the values of fairness, equality, justice, and universal human rights, then we need to do better. Equity for First Nations children should be more important to us than a birthday party.
Jennifer King is the reconciliation and policy coordinator and Cindy Blackstock is the executive director at the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada.