Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond (Aki-kwe) is professor of law at the University of British Columbia and director of the Residential School Centre for History and Dialogue
Is the life and well-being of an Indigenous child in Canada valued as much as other children? That in 2019 we must still confront this question may be shocking to some. But we shouldn’t be shocked. Again and again, we are confronted with evidence that the deplorable answer to this question is “no."
The latest example is the horrendously unjust and misguided decision of the Liberal government to fight against First Nations people being compensated – as ordered by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal – for gross discrimination and harms caused to Indigenous children and families being provided less care and services than non-Indigenous children. These are harms that have contributed to a national crisis of broken families and massive rates of Indigenous children in care.
Let’s be clear: The blatant discrimination and racism the human-rights tribunal was compensating for were not incidences from 100 years ago. Or 50 years ago. Or even a few decades ago. They were from acts in recent years – since January, 2006, and continuing right until today. And let’s not mince words about what this discrimination is. It is the actions by successive recent governments, including Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, to provide less support for some children rather than others based on race. Effectively, if you are Indigenous, you get less. If you are non-Indigenous you get more.
One would think that the endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Mr. Trudeau professing that the relationship with Indigenous peoples was the most “important” one; the adoption of a directive to change the culture of fighting with Indigenous peoples in the courts; the tearful soliloquies about the importance of reconciliation; and the professed learning and awareness gained through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls would result in making choices other than perpetuating race-based discrimination against children. But, alas, to think that would be wrong. Reconciliation, we can now see, does not mean that an Indigenous child will be valued the same as other children.
What compounds the shame of this action by the Liberal government is that since 2016, there has been order upon order from the human-rights tribunal, and opportunity upon opportunity on the government, to address this discrimination. Remember, the government chose not to appeal the original findings of discrimination of the tribunal three years ago. But at the same time, they have not taken the necessary and required steps to fully address the wrong. While there have been a few steps forward, such as Bill C-92 – which comes into effect in January, 2020, and affirms Indigenous peoples’ right to jurisdiction over child welfare services – not nearly enough has been done. And when the human-rights tribunal makes clear – as is the basic law – that discrimination has consequences, the government chooses to appeal and “quash” any effort by the tribunal to order consequences. Meanwhile, children and their families continue to suffer and the discrimination goes on.
In Canada, under this government, the violation of the Charter rights of one individual, Omar Khadr, was compensated, willingly, through an out-of-court settlement, to the tune of millions of dollars. The violation of the human rights of Indigenous children is apparently not worth a dime.
The disgust with which Indigenous people, and others across the country, have met this decision is compounded by the incoherence of the government in trying to explain it. Government spokespersons say they simply want more time to discuss how best to deal with compensation to victims and restorative justice for discrimination against First Nations children and families. If they wanted more time, I’m sure everyone would have acceded to that request.
But they didn’t ask. Instead, they went into court and filed arguments that said no compensation whatsoever should be paid. For his part, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has also said if he were to become prime minister, he would seek judicial review of the decision.
For more than 150 years, Indigenous peoples in this country have experienced the age-old colonial practice of having government officials say one thing, and then do exactly another. I can only join the chorus in saying “here we go again” and urge Canadians to speak up to your political leaders and insist they resolve this matter without further fighting – Indigenous kids deserve better because, well, it’s 2019.
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