Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She is a professor at the School of Social Work at McGill University.
Thelma Favel, Tina Fontaine’s great aunt, says that “Canada failed Tina at every step,” and she is right.
Tina was a child in care whose father was beaten to death when she was 12. In a long line of systemic failures, when Tina reached out for grief counselling, there was nothing there. The system forgot Tina was a child and her trauma culminated in her death on the shores of Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014.
Even after her death, the justice system failed her. Tina’s only hope for justice is us. Will we honour her death by implementing the recommendations arising from the report into her death and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Calls to Justice?
Sadly, based on the response thus far, the answer is not encouraging.
For example, the inquiry recommends that child welfare be reformed to address the dramatic overrepresentation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children in care. Yet the government holding up the proposed Indigenous child-welfare legislation (Bill C-92) as a response to the national inquiry is not so convincing. Proponents of the bill suggest it affirms Indigenous jurisdiction in child welfare, but it is non-Indigenous federal public servants and politicians who have thus far controlled the debate and rebutted dozens of First Nations proposals for improvement.
Just last week, Liberal members of the House of Commons Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs voted down a slew of amendments, including ones specifically related to the inquiry’s recommendations such as to: incorporate gender-neutral language; provide postmajority care services to bridge youth-in-care, such as Tina Fontaine, safely into young adulthood; and to ensure adequate funding for Indigenous child-welfare agencies. They even refused to replace the word “apprehension,” which is considered dated by many and linked to criminal apprehensions, with “placement in alternative care.”
There is no question that Indigenous jurisdiction in child welfare could be a positive game changer for Indigenous children, but without significant changes it will likely be nothing more than another empty promise to First Nations children, youth and their families.
Moreover, it has taken seven (and counting) Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders to compel the federal government to begin to fix the funding inequalities in First Nations child welfare that contribute to the overrepresentation of children in care – inequalities that Canada has known about for at least 19 years.
In addition, meagre progress has been made to address the inequalities in other First Nations public services such as public safety, health care, early childhood education and basics such as water, sanitation and internet access. Canada has known inequalities in health care have contributed to poor health outcomes and deaths of First Nations peoples for at least 112 years, and yet has refused to adopt the Spirit Bear Plan to cost out these inequalities in order to inform a comprehensive plan to address them all. Without a comprehensive and public plan, Canada’s incremental discriminatory approach to public services will continue for decades to come.
Demanding that governments provide Indigenous peoples public services free of discrimination is not reconciliation; it is providing First Nations peoples with basic services other people in Canada already enjoy.
Bill C-92 offers Indigenous children a colonial Faustian bargain: Accept the flawed bill in its current state or get nothing. This is unacceptable – it is the contemporary form of colonialism that The Globe and Mail’s editorial on the national inquiry missed this week. Government proclamations of good intentions – and statements of reconciliation – must not shield them from a serious review of their actions. Reconciliation is not what you say; it is what you do. On that measure, the Canadian government is choosing to fail.
Will Canada continue to fail Indigenous women and girls such as Tina Fontaine at every step? Only if we, the people, allow governments to fall into the old pattern of accepting recommendations and then failing to implement them. Governments don’t create change – they respond to change.
Caring Canadians of all backgrounds are beginning to demand their elected officials implement solutions to the injustices highlighted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the national inquiry’s Calls to Justice.
Join them, because the best way to honour the memories of the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls is to act.
An earlier version included inaccurate details about the death of Tina Fontaine’s father. This version has been updated with the correct information.