Cindy Blackstock is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Ghislain Picard is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
When we know better, we do better for our children. This belief drives parents to do the best for their children. But when it comes to First Nations children, the government knows better, yet refuses to do better.
For years, Ottawa has been underfunding child welfare services on-reserve. The government's own documents put this underfunding at between 22 and 34 per cent, compared to provincial rates. Children are being needlessly driven into foster care and placed at risk. Yet the government is taking no serious action.
This is why in 2007, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada took the extraordinary step of jointly filing a human-rights complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act against the federal government for its discrimination in provision of child and family services on-reserve. Federal inaction and intransigence and overwhelming concern for the 163,000 First Nations children serviced by the child welfare program forced this move, the first known case of a developed country being held to account for contemporary systemic discrimination against indigenous children before a body that can make enforceable orders. The goal is to end discrimination against children and give families an opportunity to raise their children at home.
This week, after seven years, the hearings at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal are coming to an end. Twenty-five witnesses were heard and more than 500 documents were filed. The evidence of discrimination is abundant and clear. Many reports and studies by government and independent experts confirm the underfunding that is harming our children and resulting in far too many being placed in others' care.
The government has tried to explain away its own incriminating documents as simply the "personal views" of its employees. The government even dropped its only expert witness, KPMG, after their calculations upheld and supported the shortfall.
This case strikes to the heart of Canadian values. People are shocked to learn that there are more First Nations children in care today than at the height of the residential school system. We can quote many statistics, but first and foremost, this is about children. Canadians understand this. Parents and anyone who has tried to nurture a young child understands this. This is about fairness and opportunity. The tribunal says this case has far-reaching implications for human-rights issues and will set a precedent for other on-reserve programs and services, such as education and health.
The large number of First Nations children in care is a consequence of wider social and economic challenges rooted in colonialism and residential schools and extending through to today's child welfare system. Children at risk in First Nations communities face major challenges like addictions, lack of housing, poverty, unemployment and one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world.
First Nations families and communities are already taking steps to improve safety for children, but we need equitable government resources to do more.
We only get one childhood. Raising a generation of children who are honoured, loved and supported creates a better future. The World Health Organization reports that investing $1 in a child saves taxpayers $6 to $7 dollars downstream and creates a better society. That's quite a payoff, and yet the federal government is not only shortchanging First Nations children but fighting in court to continue the practice. Why knowingly perpetuate harm?
Equity for First Nations children and families will help foster safety, security and the opportunity to succeed. Canadians should be deeply concerned that services for First Nations children and their families on-reserve fall short of those provided to other Canadian children. They should demand action, and indeed, many are joining us. Governments must work with First Nations guided by the principles of fairness, respect for rights and responsibilities.
Ottawa's current approach is stacking the odds against our children. It's time for the federal government to fight for, not against, equity and justice for children. It's time to face the truth. Action starts with fairness and opportunity for every child. And it must start now.
The eyes of our children are on us. They are pleading for us to build them a better future. We cannot, we must not, we will not let them down.
The tribunal's final arguments (livestreamed at http://www.fnwitness.ca/) will be heard Oct. 20-24, with a ruling expected in 2015.