On Tuesday, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that First Nations children were victims of willful and reckless discrimination by the federal government.
Specifically, it said funding formulas used by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada – which resulted in social service programs on reserves receiving funding that was between 22 and 34 per cent less than equivalent programs off-reserve – were a violation of human rights.
This is an important legal and moral victory, especially for First Nations children.
As tribunal members Sophie Marchildon and Edward Lustig write in the opening words of their ruling: "This decision concerns children. More precisely, it is about how the past and current child welfare practices in First Nations communities on reserves, across Canada, have impacted and continue to impact First Nations children, their families and their communities."
What the tribunal exposed is that, despite all the soothing words and flowery promises that have followed inquiries like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, institutional racism is still the daily reality at the highest levels of government.
If you think that is overstating the case, consider that it took nine long years to get a ruling on what is clearly a glaring injustice. What possible justification could there be for saying that indigenous kids and their parents deserve one-third less for social services, particularly given that a) welfare payments are already pitifully low, b) social supports are more often a crying need on-reserve than off, and c) life on the rez is costly.
The federal government, throughout the interminable process, never once argued that its practices were good for children. Rather, it bogged down the process in beside-the-point bureaucratic arguments about jurisdiction and the like.
To make matters worse, the previous Conservative government even resorted to McCarthyesque tactics to discredit the principal complainant in the case, Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society.
She was spied on, she was shut out of meetings, she was denied jobs for which she was qualified, all in retaliation for making a human rights complaint. This whole sorry tale was revealed in a previous CHRT ruling, in which Dr. Blackstock was awarded $20,000. (She donated the money to children's charities.)
As NDP MP Charlie Angus said Tuesday: "Cindy Blackstock is one of the great civil rights heroines of our nation." The tribunal ruling is a vindication for her.
But she will be the first to say that no moral victory and no amount of money can undo the damage done by entrenched, deleterious social-welfare policies.
As a result of "funding formulas," many children were denied proper care and many parents were denied a livable income.
Many parents also lost custody of their children at least in part because of the inadequacy and underfunding of services. Some children, like Jordan River Anderson, even died while Ottawa and provinces bickered over who should pay for care and how much.
This gave rise to a policy known as Jordan's Principle that holds that the "government of first contact" pay for services and then seek reimbursement later. In other words, put the welfare of children first, and jurisdiction disputes a distant second.
These are not trivial matters for 167,000 First Nations children and their parents and guardians.
We can no longer make the mistake of dismissing this as bureaucratic nickel-and-diming because it's much more.
It's a continuation of racist (and, in some cases, genocidal) policies like the Indian Act, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.
Let's not forget that there are more indigenous children in foster care and other forms of state care today than there ever were in residential schools and, in many cases, the cultural dislocation and the abuse, psychological and sexual, are just as bad.
Have we learned nothing from our shameful history?
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling suggests strongly that we have not learned enough.
So how do we begin to fix it?
The CHRT, in its ruling, did not rule on compensation. The Caring Society has asked that every First Nations child be awarded the maximum $20,000 each.
More importantly, the tribunal has the power to order government to end its discriminatory practices, and that could have profound repercussions.
As Ms. Marchildon and Mr. Lustig write in their ruling: "More than just funding, there is a need to refocus the policy of the program to respect human rights principles and sound social work practice. In the best interest of the child, all First Nations children and families living on-reserve should have an opportunity '… equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have and to have their needs accommodated, consistent with their duties and obligations as members of society.' "
If Canada and its government truly believe in human rights for all, indigenous people cannot be second-class citizens, in policy or in practice.