The federal Liberal government is preparing to overhaul the way welfare is delivered on reserves after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the discriminatory policies of the Indigenous Affairs department have led to chronic underfunding and are damaging the lives of thousands of First Nations children.
The tribunal's decision, released Tuesday, said the government is failing to provide money for welfare on reserves in amounts equivalent to what is available elsewhere in Canada. First Nations children are therefore denied essential health and social services, and an unnecessary number are placed in foster care because the government will not pay for the supports that could be used to keep them in their homes.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former member of the Assembly of First Nations national executive, told the House of Commons that the government will take some time to review the lengthy ruling. "But understand and recognize that there will likely not be any reason why we would seek judicial review of this decision," Ms. Wilson-Raybould said. "We can and must do better, and we will renovate the child-welfare system in this country."
The tribunal's ruling came nearly nine years after the case was launched by the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and after the previous Conservative government tried eight times to have it thrown out on technicalities. Indigenous leaders hailed the work of Cindy Blackstock, the director of the Caring Society who has been the central figure in the fight to end the inequity.
"This is a complete victory for children," Ms. Blackstock told a news conference on Tuesday afternoon. "It strips away any sensibility that First Nations children are being treated fairly by the government of Canada today. And I want to dedicate this decision to all of the First Nations children who, for years and for decades, have been denied an equal opportunity to live the life they wish to have had."
The tribunal found that discriminatory policies embedded by the Indigenous Affairs department into the First Nations Child and Family Services Program, which pays for welfare on reserves, "perpetuate the historical disadvantage and trauma suffered by aboriginal people, in particular as a result of the Residential Schools system."
The government's own documents say the underfunding for welfare on reserves runs between 22 per cent and 34 per cent, compared with provincial rates. It was estimated in 2012 that it would take an additional $109-million a year to close the gap.
Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, told reporters that she is committed to resolving the problem and that she will be judged on her ability to get more First Nations children out of foster care.
"We know we are going to have to significantly increase the dollars that are available for child-welfare programs. We are now in the midst of a budget process and that is how those decisions get taken in terms of dollars," she said. "This is about assessing the need and putting sufficient dollars there to make it happen."
The Human Rights Tribunal asked for an immediate removal of the most discriminatory aspects of the funding schemes that Indigenous Affairs uses to pay for child welfare on reserves. It also called for the proper implementation of Jordan's Principle, which says indigenous children should have the same access to services as other Canadians without delays caused by jurisdictional disputes between governments or government departments.
The Caring Society has asked the tribunal to order that a national advisory committee be convened to identify the discriminatory parts of the funding formula for welfare on reserves. It said there should be regional negotiation to establish equitable and culturally based funding policies. And it said there should be an independent oversight body to ensure that the Indigenous Affairs department does not discriminate in the future.
In addition, the Caring Society asked the tribunal to order the government to pay compensation of $20,000 for every child who was taken from a family living on reserve after 2006, with the money to be put into an independent trust to pay for healing.
The tribunal panel said it will contact the parties within three weeks to determine how the appropriate remedies and compensation will be decided.