Cindy Blackstock is an associate professor at the University of Alberta and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
As the mandate for the inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women takes shape, the government ought to consider the role systemic disadvantage plays in placing women and girls at higher risk for violence. The recent revelations in Val-d'Or, Que., for example, suggest that racism is more prevalent than we would like to think.
As a recent series in The Globe and Mail reported, a number of the murdered and missing women and girls were in foster care. A child-welfare system is an essential public service. In those rare occasions where parents are unable to ensure the safety and development of their children, the state must step in and provide alternative arrangements that will safeguard the interests of the children.
However, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pointed out, the system is not well-suited to the needs of indigenous children. It does not account for the multigenerational impacts of residential schools and inequitable services on reserves. This means First Nations families have less support to care for their children than other Canadians. This entails a dramatic overrepresentation of First Nations children in foster care. The problem is so severe that there are more First Nations children in foster care today than at the height of residential schools. Too often, indigenous children removed from their families are placed in non-indigenous foster homes and experience multiple placements. When that happens, indigenous children are not only separated from their families, but also from their culture and from their communities. Taken together, these circumstances place First Nations girls and women at greater risk for disadvantage, including violence.
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society brought a human-rights challenge against the federal government to correct the inequalities in on-reserve child welfare and give First Nations an equitable chance to care for their children. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is expected to rule soon on the matter. In the evidence before the tribunal, we learned that:
The federal funding formula puts an incentive on the removal of children from their families by inequitably funding family support services;
Rigidity in federal government mandates results in First Nations children being denied or delayed receipt of public services available to all other children;
Federal policy prevents the adaptation of provincial child-welfare systems to First Nations cultures and community needs;
The federal government pays non-aboriginal child-welfare providers more money than it pays First Nations to deliver the same services.
Instead of remedying the inequalities First Nations children experience, the previous federal government failed to implement evidence-based solutions to address the problems and spent at least $5-million trying to derail the human-rights case on legal technicalities. This regressive public-policy approach got in the way of implementing proven strategies to help First Nation children and families, and in doing so perpetuated the long, dark shadow of federal-government discrimination against First Nations children.
Tragically, Canadian governments have not paid enough attention to the well-being of children. The KidsRights Index ranks Canada 57th in the world when it comes to respecting children's rights in proportion to its wealth. That means the Canadian economy is doing about five times better than Canadian kids are.
Saving money on the backs of kids is fool's gold. As the World Health Organization notes, for every government dollar invested in children, taxpayers save $7 in downstream costs, such as policing, addictions and social assistance. Thus it makes good economic and moral sense for the federal government to end inequalities in First Nations education, health and child welfare.
When an inquiry gets under way and explores how these tragedies can be prevented, it should turn its attention to the long-standing gaps in children's services in First Nation communities. The federal government simply can't afford to continue to use racial discrimination as a fiscal-restraint measure. Our children deserve better.