Cindy Blackstock doesn’t know why Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau lied about taking First Nations kids to court during the leaders’ debate last week.
But Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, is “really sad” he did.
Especially when there is over 14 years of evidence — including court transcripts, news articles and 20 non-compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal — to the contrary.
“They have every legal right to litigate against our kids. I think it’s morally wrong — and it’s bad for the country — but they’ve chosen to do it,” said Blackstock of the government’s Federal Court case arguing against a tribunal ruling that First Nations children and families impacted by the child welfare system should be compensated.
“What they don’t have a right to do is then lie about it to protect themselves from accountability for their own behaviour.”
Blackstock would know: along with the Assembly of First Nations, her organization took the federal government to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2008 over its systemic underfunding of child welfare on reserves.
In 2016, the tribunal issued its ruling: the federal government had been knowingly underfunding services for 165,000 First Nations kids and their families for decades. The tribunal ordered the government to stop its discriminatory practices.
More than 50 per cent of children in government care in this country are Indigenous, despite representing fewer than 10 per cent of all children. The majority are First Nations children taken into care for “neglect,” which child welfare researchers say is another word for poverty.
In 2019, the tribunal declared the government must pay $40,000 — the maximum the tribunal can award — to every First Nations child removed from their family since 2006. Their guardians before the children were taken into care are entitled to $20,000.
The tribunal also awarded $40,000 to every First Nations child denied federal medical coverage between 2007 and 2017, citing Jordan’s Principle, a 2007 policy that governments should pay the medical bills of any First Nations child, on or off-reserve.
But two weeks before the 2019 election, government lawyers requested a judicial review of the compensation orders.
Hearings were held in Federal Court in June, less than a month after the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation announced the rediscovery of 215 bodies on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The Federal Court’s ruling is expected at any time.
The government also took issue with the tribunal’s 2020 declaration that all children with Indian Act status; eligibility for status; or parents or guardians who have status, live on-reserve and whose First Nation acknowledges their membership — are covered by Jordan’s Principle.
The federal government argued before the court that only children with status under the Indian Act — a racist Canadian law that determines First Nations’ band membership — should be covered.
The Liberals have tried to respond to Canada’s child welfare crisis. In 2018 they released a six-point plan to reform child welfare, including implementing the tribunal’s ruling and working with Indigenous leaders to re-establish jurisdiction over child welfare.
In January 2020, the federal Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families became law, starting the process to return jurisdiction to Indigenous communities. But it did not come with funding, and a year and a half later the federal government has yet to release a funding plan.
In B.C., a working group on child welfare and family services was established by the provincial and federal governments, the BC Assembly of First Nations, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and the First Nations Summit.
Assembly Regional Chief Terry Teegee said that three of the 198 First Nations in the province are close to reclaiming their inherent jurisdiction over child welfare, though a federal funding commitment is needed.
“It’s always a work in progress, and I certainly know that a lot of these changes weren’t going to happen overnight,” Teegee said, adding the assembly is also waiting on provincial child-welfare jurisdiction legislation.
“We can’t let up. We need to continue on to allow our First Nations to take their rightful place in asserting their jurisdiction and their ability to express their sovereignty and self-determination in terms of children.”
The Splatsin of the Secwe̓pemc Nation is one of the three nations. It was close to signing a child welfare co-ordination agreement with the federal government before it was scrapped due to the election.
But despite how close they were, Splatsin Kukpi7 (Chief) Wayne Christian said the process has been frustrating, in part because the federal government has approached transferring child welfare jurisdiction like it is creating a new federal program.
“It’s beyond belief that you have a whole number of bureaucrats staffing up to offer this program,” he said.
No matter which party forms government, Christian said, the main stumbling block to re-establishing jurisdiction are the bureaucrats who have worked in the departments dedicated to Indigenous affairs for decades.
“They have a certain culture of how to operate with ‘the Indian problem’ and they’re still acting like Indian agents, except there’s a multitude of them now,” he said.
“It’s the bureaucracy that makes things happen, and they’re very slow to react to what we actually need to happen. They deny, delay and distract, that’s what they do.”
Here is what the major political parties are pledging for First Nations child welfare.
Liberal Party of Canada
While the court case indicates otherwise, the Liberals pledge to “continue to work with Indigenous partners to ensure fair and equitable compensation” for those harmed by the systemic underfunding.
They pledge to continue working on child welfare reform, including “fully” funding Jordan’s Principle; “fully implementing” the act that re-establishes Indigenous child welfare jurisdiction; and extending supports for First Nations youth two years beyond the age of the majority.
They maintain they have implemented 80 per cent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, and they promise to finish the job. However, this claim has its critics, including researchers at Ryerson University’s Yellowhead Institute, who found last December that only eight of the recommendations had been fully implemented.
The cost estimates included with the Liberal plan don’t reference Indigenous or First Nations child welfare. This makes it hard to know how much funding the government is willing to put behind these promises and what they will achieve.
Over the next five years, the Liberals promise to spend $1.4 billion on Indigenous mental health and trauma support; $75 million on revitalizing Indigenous cultures, languages and laws; and $2 billion on Indigenous housing.
Conservative Party of Canada
The only mention of “child welfare” in the Conservative platform is a promise to co-ordinate between child and animal welfare services, part of their pledge to treat animal abuse as a potential precursor to human abuse.
There is a focus on Indigenous self-determination, however, with the platform calling for an end to “federal paternalism” and promising to partner with Indigenous communities and empower Indigenous people to meet their own needs and deliver their own services.
The party vows to work with First Nations on overhauling the delivery of social services and infrastructure; offer leadership training for Indigenous youth; create a national action plan on violence against women and girls; and enable the First Nations Finance Authority to leverage the market to “supercharge” government infrastructure funding.
However, the Conservatives’ costed-out platform only mentions Indigenous people twice — First Nations people not at all — promising $1 billion for Indigenous mental health and $26 million to reduce the incarceration of Indigenous people over five years.
New Democratic Party
The most extensive child welfare pledges come from the Greens and the NDP.
The NDP pledges to implement all 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which includes overhauling child welfare and implementing Jordan’s Principle. It also commits to implementing the Calls for Justice recommendations from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
The party promises long-term, predictable and sustainable funding to enable a return of child welfare jurisdiction to Indigenous communities.
The NDP would stop the Federal Court challenge and fully implement the tribunal’s orders, and work with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society to implement the Spirit Bear Plan.
This is why Blackstock endorses the NDP platform above the rest, as the Spirit Bear Plan is designed to eliminate “all inequalities in public services,” she said.
The NDP released its costed-out platform this week, promising $17.5 billion over five years to implement the tribunal’s ruling and bring First Nations child welfare funding up to the level non-Indigenous child welfare services receive.
Green Party of Canada
The Green party pledges to end the court case and fully implement the tribunal’s orders; uphold Jordan’s Principle, including ensuring non-status children have access; implement the 94 Calls to Action, as well as recommendations from the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; affirm the inherent jurisdiction of Inuit, Metis and First Nations communities over child and family services; and recognize the child welfare crisis as a continuation of the residential school system in Canada.
On First Nations child welfare funding reform, the Greens pledge to adopt the recommendations outlined in the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy’s 2020 report, which called for establishing a “results framework” that views success as healthy children, families and communities.
Federal funding would be tied to that framework, and a “non-political” First Nations policy and practice secretariat would be appointed to oversee the transition from government to First Nations’ jurisdiction.
The Greens have not released cost estimates for these promises.