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First Nations leaders say the Prime Minister is wrong to suggest their communities, such as the one in Attawapiskat, Ont., seen above in April, 2016, are not ready to handle cash for social services. Justin Trudeau has said many Indigenous communities have not had a chance to address these issues.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

First Nations leaders say Justin Trudeau is wrong when he says native communities do not yet know how they would spend additional funds for child welfare and health services.

When asked this week to explain why the Liberals, who came to power promising a new relationship with Canada's Indigenous people, are not providing First Nations with the cash that would pay for the same level of social services available off-reserve, Mr. Trudeau said native communities are still building their social-service capacity and trying to decide what the money should buy – and that will take time.

"In the history of the Canadian relationship, it's been very rare that you had a government say to Indigenous communities, 'What do you need? … We have money there. We're ready to invest in you. You just need to tell us how you need it spent, where you're going to spend it and how you can best help,'" the Prime Minister told reporters. "Well, a lot of Indigenous communities haven't had the opportunity yet to take that responsibility, to actually think about how they can and must deliver [social services]."

The Liberal government believes it is essential for First Nations to make such decisions for themselves, Mr. Trudeau said. "When we talk about reconciliation, when we talk about a true future in partnership with First Nations, Métis Nation and Inuit peoples in this country," he said, "we recognize it took hundreds of years to get here, it's going to take many, many generations to end this legacy."

But First Nations leaders say it is wrong to suggest their communities are unready to handle additional cash for social services.

"Clearly, there is discrimination which has been shown and the only way to end it is by putting the adequate resources, the fiscal resources in place," said Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

Although Mr. Trudeau is correct that it will take generations to fix some of the problems, especially those created by the legacy of the residential-school experience, that does not need to happen with child welfare and child health, Mr. Bellegarde said.

"To deal with this issue of ending discrimination against children? That can happen immediately" with the right amount of money, he said.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found in January, 2016, after a case that had dragged on for nine years, that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children by failing to provide them with the same level of social and health services that are available to other Canadian kids.

The government responded by increasing the amount it provides to native child welfare by $71-million last year and $99-million this year – although a significant portion of that stayed within the Department of Indigenous Affairs – and promises to boost the amount annually until 2022.

But the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which launched the human rights case (that the AFN also took part in), says that is far short of the extra $200-million a year that is needed now to end the inequity. The tribunal, meanwhile, has issued three non-compliance orders against Ottawa for failing to meet the terms of its ruling.

Isadore Day, the AFN's Ontario Regional Chief, said it is "absolutely false" to suggest that First Nations would not know what to do with extra funding for social services.

"There's a long list of needs. Those needs have been articulated for quite some time, so it's really not a matter of not knowing where to spend the money" Mr. Day said. "All we have to do is look at the suicides in the communities in the North to know that there certainly is an immediate need and demand for resources to help save these kids' lives."

Money is needed for health and wellness, preventive programs, child and family services in communities, education and better housing, he said. "This is just a matter of the current Liberal government foot-dragging because they are not prepared to work towards a new shift in the governance of First Nations spending."

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said some First Nations social service agencies that are ready right now are in need of the money and know exactly how it would be spent.

"So let's say there are a few agencies that really need some reformation," Ms. Blackstock said. "Why would you penalize the rest?"

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