Growing up in Windsor, Ontario in the 1940s, Paul Martin was well aware of the civil rights struggles happening just over the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.
“I walked in the civil rights marches. Those were issues that we knew,” the former Prime Minister told The Tyee in a phone interview.
What Martin, the son of Essex East MP Paul John Martin, didn’t know about was the civil rights struggle happening in his own backyard, not until the summer he turned 19 and took a job as a deckhand on a cargo ship on the Mackenzie River. For the first time in his life, Martin found himself working and playing alongside young Inuit, Dene First Nation and Métis men.
“These guys were every bit as smart as any of my friends back home, every bit as hard-working, every bit as much fun, and we became really, really close friends. And we talked about issues,” he said. “And it was an eye-opener for me.”
That summer on the Mackenzie River had a profound impact on Martin’s life, he said, and his efforts to realize equity for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada. Especially for children.
But Martin was an MP for 20 years, finance minister for almost a decade and then Prime Minister. He had every chance to change things.
Yet Indigenous child welfare remains in crisis and Indigenous children are five to 12 times to be taken into care as non-Indigenous children.
Martin was hardly the only Canadian unaware of the treatment of Indigenous people.
In 1957, when he was working on the cargo ship, it had been only six years since the Indian Act was amended to allow First Nations people to leave the reserve without getting permission from an Indian agent. Six years since First Nations kids were allowed into public schools. And six years since the federal government had delegated responsibility — but not funding — for on-reserve social services to the provinces.
It would be another three years until First Nations people were allowed to vote in federal elections, and another 25 years until Indigenous rights were enshrined in the Canadian constitution.
Martin maintains the crisis for Indigenous children and families would be over if the new Conservative government hadn’t killed the Kelowna Accord in 2006. The agreement, reached with Indigenous leaders, the provinces and territories, would have seen $10 billion in federal funding spent over 10 years on Indigenous health and education.
But others, like Cindy Blackstock, veteran social worker and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, aren’t convinced the Kelowna Accord would have closed the funding gap or solved the Indigenous child welfare crisis — or addressed the government racism behind decades of neglect.
The federal government has known about the over-representation of Indigenous children in care since at least 1977, and about the conditions on First Nations reserves and in Inuit communities for much longer than that. Yet it failed to act on child welfare, education, housing and infrastructure issues in Indigenous communities.
A string of governments, including those of Lester Pearson, Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Joe Clark, failed to make any moves toward fully funding services for Indigenous communities or to stem the flow of their children into the child welfare system.
Martin said it’s an inexcusable failure. Blackstock says it’s racism.
“Should we have done more? The answer is yes. And every government that preceded ours should have done more. There is no excuse,” Martin said. “It’s inexplicable and it’s indefensible.”
As finance minister, Martin presided over some of the biggest spending cuts in Canadian history.
Martin noted he didn’t cut spending on what was then the department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
But his 1995 budget did cap annual increases for First Nations services at two per cent, despite inflation, a growing population and a desperate need for improvements to housing, education, health care and infrastructure on reserve.
And that cap remained in place for 19 years, until 2015. Martin later admitted regret for not removing the arbitrary spending cap earlier.
Martin still maintains the Kelowna Accord would have made a huge difference in the lives of Indigenous people.
In 2005, his Liberal government reached a deal with the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Native Women’s Association, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Métis National Council to close the funding gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous services by 2016.
“The position that I took was to say to them, look, I’m going to call a federal-provincial conference and we are going to work with you,” Martin said of his message to the Indigenous leaders.
“You tell us what you believe the issues are, so it’s going to be your agenda. And they said to us the issues are health care, education, and those things which follow, child welfare being one of them.”
The deal, reached after 18 months of negotiations with the leaders and provinces and territories, included $5 billion over the first five years to improve Indigenous health care and education.
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society had campaigned for a new approach after the death of five-year-old Jordan River Anderson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation. He languished in hospital for two years while the federal and Manitoba governments fought over who should pay for his home care services. The principle would ensure any First Nations child’s needs are met first, with jurisdictional issues sorted out later.
“But that was only the beginning,” Martin said. “That was to establish the foundation for child welfare and a range of other issues.” Another $5 billion was committed for services over the following five years.
“Ultimately my goal was the elimination of the Indian Act and its replacement by self-government dealing with all of these issues, beginning with health care and education, and child welfare.”
The Kelowna Accord was signed at a First Ministers’ meeting in Kelowna on Nov. 24, 2005.
But five days later, Martin’s minority Liberal government fell. A 2006 election brought Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to power. They said they agreed with the Accord in principle but provided much less funding to meet the goals: $150 million in 2006, compared to the $600 million promised by the Liberals.
“In my opinion, Indigenous rights were being violated across the board,” Martin said. “To deny, in the case of child welfare, a small child, a baby born, the opportunity to achieve in life what is available to everybody else is just wrong. It’s morally wrong and it’s economically lunatic.”
But Cindy Blackstock isn’t convinced the Kelowna Accord would have closed the funding gap or solved the Indigenous child welfare crisis.
She has been sounding the alarm on Parliament Hill about funding gaps and inequality since her organization started producing reports for what was then Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in 2000.
“We finished the first one in 2000, and 17 recommendations,” Blackstock said. The government didn’t act on it.
“It was the same-old, same-old,” she recalled. “They said, well we need a more specific study to go to Treasury Board with. OK, we said.”
The second report, “Wen:de Coming to the Light of Day,” was released in 2005. A team of 20 researchers, including five economists, produced a detailed report with 150 pages of spreadsheets costing out a plan to raise spending on First Nations child welfare, then 30 per cent below spending on non-Indigenous children, to an equal level.
It was never implemented.
“It was almost a normalization within the federal government that racial discrimination was a legitimate fiscal restraint measure and we should be comfortable having this thing dealt with on an incremental basis and at the pace of the federal government itself,” Blackstock said.
“I was not comfortable with that because I saw irrevocable harms happening for these kids and their families every day, and it was owing to the fact that, you know, these families were not getting an equitable chance to stay together.”
Blackstock noted the Kelowna Accord had no specific provisions on child welfare.
Both Martin and Blackstock agree that alleviating poverty, poor housing and infrastructure issues and improving education in Indigenous communities would go a long way to reducing the number of children in care.
But even if the accord had been implemented, it would have taken years to result in major improvements in children’s lives, Blackstock notes, and in the interim there would still be kids and families who wouldn’t see equal funding for child welfare services.
“I'm not sure it would have seen the types of impacts that we want to see, which is a dramatic reduction in the overrepresentation,” said Blackstock.
Faced with the failure of the Kelowna Accord and the federal government’s refusal to close the funding gap between First Nations and non-First Nations kids, neither Martin nor Blackstock gave up.
Martin, who retired from federal politics in 2008, founded the Martin Family Initiative to help improve elementary and secondary education in First Nations communities.
The initiative received $30 million in the 2016 federal budget to expand its Model School Project after an encouraging pilot program assisting two First Nations schools in implementing an Ontario public school literacy program.
When the program began, 13 per cent of Grade 3 students at the schools were reading at their grade level. That increased to 81 per cent after five years, higher than the Ontario average of 78 per cent. The federal dollars are supposed to help the initiative expand the model to 20 schools by 2020.
Blackstock took a different approach, partnering with the Assembly of First Nations to launch a complaint against the government with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2007. The case took nine years, in part due to the number of appeals and roadblocks the government of Canada threw up to delay or dismiss the case.
But on Jan. 26, 2016, the tribunal ruled Canada was discriminating against First Nations children by not providing adequate, equitable or even equal funding for services.
The federal government spent $707,000 fighting the case. It wasn’t until the federal government received the fifth non-compliance ruling from the tribunal in February that the Liberal government stepped up with $1.4 billion in new funding over five years for Indigenous child welfare.
We still don’t know the actual price tag for complying with the tribunal ruling, Blackstock said, because the government has not assessed the cost of providing the same services — including maternal and child health, early childhood education, and mental health — for First Nations kids on reserves as children in the rest of Canada receive.
“Get the Parliamentary budget officer to cost out all the inequalities in all First Nations children's services,” Blackstock said. “Let’s see what the big ticket is when you add up all those inequalities and then launch something akin to the Marshall Plan after the Second World War to fix these things within a timeframe that is reasonable for children.”
Martin said he’s not convinced racism played a role in the federal government’s delays in funding equal services for Indigenous child welfare or improving life on First nations reserves.
“I think it was a lack of awareness. It certainly was a lack of awareness among Canadians,” he said. “I don’t think it was racism but I think whatever the heck the lack of awareness was among government was indefensible.”
But Blackstock is unequivocal in her belief that racism was and is involved in the treatment of Indigenous kids in Canada.
“I cannot imagine them rationalizing giving any other child less public services because of their race and getting away with it,” she said.
“I’ve said on the record that I believe that Canada uses racial discrimination as federal fiscal policy.”
Coming Thursday: In part five, a look at B.C.’s response to the crisis — and what Indigenous communities think of it.
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