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First Nations children who live off-reserve in British Columbia will face greater discrimination on April 1, when the federal government begins payments on the largest settlement in Canadian legal history – a $40-billion package that promises compensation for those harmed by underfunding of First Nations child and family services on reserve.

A report released Tuesday by B.C.’s watchdog for children and youth says First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous children living off-reserve were already at a disadvantage because provincial services for them are inferior to those for on-reserve children who fall under the responsibility of Ottawa.

That gap is about to widen because the province has not kept up with Ottawa’s commitments to reform its programs.

“The resource allocation to a young person depends on where they live – on- or off-reserve,” noted Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth. She is calling on B.C. to align with Ottawa’s funding structure within one year. “This is about human rights.”

The federal government was forced to increase funding after it failed to overturn a landmark ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on its discriminatory fiscal policies affecting First Nations children. That means a significant win for on-reserve First Nations children, families and their service providers, Dr. Charlesworth said, but all First Nations off-reserve, as well as Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous children and youth, are left out of the equation.

In the report, At a Crossroads, the representative said 2021 should have been a pivotal year for improved circumstances for Indigenous families. Canadians were confronted with the reality of the harmful assimilationist policies of residential schools when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced the preliminary findings of 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. That in turn put the spotlight on the perpetual and chronic overrepresentation of First Nations, Métis, Inuit and urban Indigenous children and youth in government care – a system that has been compared to the residential school system.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that Ottawa discriminated, in part, because its funding system incentivized the removal of First Nations children from their homes in order to access child welfare services. That same funding system, Dr. Charlesworth noted, remains in place in British Columbia.

But the representative could not say how large the funding gap is between the provincial and federal systems, because B.C.’s funding programs for child welfare are so opaque that the watchdog retained the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy to analyze the delivery of child and family services.

The IFSD, in its work for the B.C. watchdog’s office, found Indigenous children across Canada continue to face issues of substantive inequality, but it is worse if they fall under provincial responsibility in B.C.: “If you are an Indigenous child not living in your First Nation, you are likely experiencing the most service-oriented challenges,” the agency concluded.

The IFSD found that the funding system at B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development needs an urgent overhaul. “The existing allocation system at MCFD is broken. MCFD’s funding cannot be linked to priorities or goals, making it impossible to connect expenditures and results. There is no means of testing the adequacy and suitability of funding to meet needs,” the IFSD report found.

Mary Teegee, B.C. representative on the National Advisory Committee on First Nations Child and Family Services through the Assembly of First Nations and a board member of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, noted that it took years of advocacy and lawsuits to force Canada to improve its funding system. That has led to incremental improvements on the federal side. As an example of the gap, she pointed to the caseloads of social workers. A social worker working within the on-reserve system may have as many as eight children to provide services to. A social worker on the provincial side working with off-reserve Indigenous children can have as many as 60 case files at one time.

“We’re at this crossroads, what is the province going to do?” she said. “We don’t want to go to court, but we’ll do what we have to do.”

Mitzi Dean, Minister of Children and Family Development, said in a statement she will review the two reports over the coming weeks. She acknowledged that these challenges have been raised before, and said the work to address inequities and “long-standing fiscal and data issues” has been under way for some time.

“We are committed to continuing the important work we have begun together with our partners on a new fiscal framework that will ensure equitable funding for Indigenous children, youth and families in our province,” the minister said.

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