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Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, waits to appear before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hearings in Ottawa on Feb. 25, 2013.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The federal government's refusal to provide equitable child welfare on reserves is forcing thousands of youth into foster care and ripping families apart in ways that echo the notorious residential-school system of previous decades, says the head of the organization that represents Canada's first nations.

Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was one of the first people Monday to testify at a hearing before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The hearing will spend the next 14 weeks examining whether Ottawa is treating native children unfairly.

Studies have shown that the provinces provide welfare to other Canadian children at rates that are 22 per cent higher than the amount given by the federal government to first nations children, said Mr. Atleo. Ottawa is responsible for social assistance on reserves where the levels of poverty and the associated problems are higher than most other places in Canada.

Social workers must do everything they can to keep children in their homes when families are going through a crisis, Mr. Atleo told the hearing. But, he said, there is not enough money to pay for the services that would allow first nations children to remain with their families.

As a result, Mr. Atleo said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail, the numbers of children from reserves in foster care – estimated at 27,000 in 2006 – has surpassed the number of children who were being forcibly removed from their families during the height of the residential school era. They are being deprived of their language, their culture and the places they call home, he said.

"While the previous policy was explicit in seeking to remove children and to 'kill the Indian in the child,'" said Mr. Atleo, "the experience of first nations in relation to the child-welfare system is that, if it's not the explicit intent to kill the Indian in the child and remove children, it certainly has been the experience in our communities."

The federal government has spent years and millions of dollars fighting the human rights complaint about the funding disparity that was filed in 2007 by the AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Ottawa says it is unfair to compare the federal and provincial welfare systems – a case it will continue to make at a separate hearing next week before the Federal Court of Appeal.

The government also argues that the welfare funding for first nations children has increased by 25 per cent since 2007.

"It is certainly the case that the education funding provided by the government is comparable to that which is provided for off-reserve Canadians by most of the provinces," Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan told the House of Commons on Monday.

The child-welfare issue is just one more battle between the government and first nations, which have become increasingly vocal in their expressions of dissatisfaction with federal policies.

Mr. Atleo and a delegation of chiefs and other representatives of the AFN met with Prime Minster Stephen Harper and other government officials on Jan. 11 to discuss the deteriorating relationship. Mr. Harper and Mr. Atleo agreed at that time that they would quickly get together for a supplementary discussion but that has yet to be scheduled.

"A meeting will happen when there is potential for substance and action and follow-through," said Mr. Atleo.

New Brunswick MP Bernard Valcourt replaced John Duncan as Aboriginal Affairs Minister last Friday, and Mr. Atleo said he had a discussion with Mr. Valcourt over the weekend.

"We've committed to having a conversation," he said. "But we have to make this very clear. The challenge in not achieving progress since last January, the Prime Minister conceded, was because of lack of oversight by him and his office."