Celebrating a great day for human rights in Canada

“This is a great day for First Nations children and all Canadians who believe in justice and fairness.” Dr. Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society

In a landmark decision issued today, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that the federal government’s longstanding underfunding of child and family services on First Nations reserves and in the Yukon is a form of racial discrimination that must be stopped.

Here are three reasons this decision is so important:

  1. Underfunding of child and family services has denied First Nations children the protection they deserve and has hurt First Nations families and communities. Despite greater needs, and the often higher costs of providing services in small and remote communities, the federal government has long provided much less funding per child than the provinces and territories provide for all other children in need. One result, as the Tribunal concluded, is to create an “incentive” to remove children from their families and communities and put them into state care. Today, the numbers of First Nations children being taken into care is even higher than at the height of the residential school era – and has many of the same effects, including loss of culture, language and identity. The Tribunal has ordered immediate action to address this discrimination, including through implementation of Jordan’s Principle, a Canadian standard that says that the needs of children must come first, regardless of any issues jurisdiction. The Tribunal also said it will oversee a process to consider in greater detail the recommendations for systemic reform brought forwrd by the Caring Society and the AFN.
  2. The Tribunal has decisively rejected the federal’s government’s efforts to limit the scope of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Throughout an 8-year-long process, including multiple court appeals, the federal government has tried to argue that the prohibition of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act shouldn’t apply to the effects of its funding decisions in First Nations communities. The federal government also fought against the use of international human rights standards like the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in interpreting its legal obligations. If the federal government had succeeded in these arguments, it would have dramatically narrowed the scope of human rights protections in Canada. Fortunately, the Tribunal rejected these efforts, saying, “Canada’s statements and commitments, whether expressed on the international scene or at the national level, should not be allowed to remain empty rhetoric.”
  3. The ruling has far-reaching implications for other services in First Nations communities. A virtually identical pattern of underfunding applies in a wide range of other areas affecting the lives of First Nations children and families, including education, healthcare and housing. The Tribunal ruling helps add to the pressure for much-needed changes in federal policies. As Cindy Blackstock said, “Racial discrimination against children must not be tolerated and it is vital that Canadians watch the government’s actions closely to ensure the ruling is implemented and inequalities in other First Nations children’s services such as education, health and basics like water and housing are fully addressed.”

Like the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, today’s decision adds to growing momentum for a new relationship between Indigenous peoples and the government of Canada based on fundamental principles of respect for human rights.

In a public statement issued today, Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada said, “We extend our heartfelt congratulations to Cindy Blackstock and everyone who has supported this long and difficult struggle for justice. And we urge Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet to resolutely set aside the objections of the previous government, and work in good faith with First Nations to ensure that First Nations children receive the quality of services they need and deserve.”

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