Bloated bureaucracy the real enemy of Indigenous reconciliation

TheStar.com – News/Canada – Ottawa has its heart in the right place but must move aside an entrenched bureaucracy that slows, rather than speeds, change.
Nov. 2, 2017.   TIM HARPER, National Affairs Columnist

Canada’s Indigenous population, Statistics Canada has recently reminded us, is growing at a rate that dwarfs that of the country’s non-Indigenous population.

It is also a younger population. Close to 30 per cent of the Indigenous population is under 15, almost double the non-Indigenous percentage in that age group.

And that youth too often starts behind.

Canadian children who identify as First Nations, Metis or Inuit make up about 8 per cent of all Canadians aged 4 years and younger, yet they make up more than half the pre-schoolers in foster care.

Of all children in foster care in this country, more than four in 10 are Indigenous.

Children only get one childhood, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Thursday. So there must be some urgency in righting wrongs.

But official Ottawa is where urgency goes to die.

Two of the most vital measures of Indigenous reconciliation, the gap in child welfare funding and the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, have returned to centre stage this week.

To listen to those seeking change in recent days is to hear the quintessential Canadian laments about stifling bureaucracy, overlapping jurisdictions and work being done at cross purposes.

Bellegarde was in the capital Thursday for a “day of action” to press the government on a gnawing wound for Indigenous leaders, the continued foot-dragging by the Liberals who have been ordered by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to stop discriminating against Indigenous on-reserve children on funding for health and welfare.

Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the AFN won a ruling against the government in January, 2016, and Ottawa has not moved despite three binding orders of non-compliance.

It is a case of discrimination, nothing less.

“Everybody gets it,” Bellegarde said. “Let’s get it done.’’

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott wants to move and she will convene an emergency meeting with the provinces in early 2018 to deal with the “crisis-level’’ rates of Indigenous children in care.

The status quo is not working and reform of the child welfare system is immediately needed, she wrote in a letter to the provinces released this week.

Philpott pledges Ottawa will step up and she concedes that much provincial work is already being done.

As recently as June, Philpott was being accused of trying to quash provisions of the tribunal ruling, even as she maintained the government was merely trying to “clarify” provisions in an application for a judicial review.

The provincial involvement is needed, but it raises the jurisdictional mess of 13 bilateral agreements.

Ottawa, however, could move immediately and comply with the tribunal. The AFN has calculated $155 million is needed immediately to close the gap with off-reserve spending.

A day earlier, more frustration was aired, this time from the national inquiry, a key to the Liberal reconciliation endeavour, but now an inquiry which has drawn national attention only for its false starts, postponed hearings, firings and resignations.

It too is straddling jurisdictional lines legally, simultaneously holding 14 joint inquiries because each province and territory allowed it to probe within their jurisdiction.

It is also trying to do things differently, de-colonizing the system on the go, as it put it in its interim report. The inquiry system it is working under is unable to respond quickly or flexibly based on “Indigenous worldviews.”

It bared its list of frustrations.

Federal privacy laws mean that Ottawa would not give the inquiry the contact information for victims’ families and survivors who were involved in the pre-inquiry period.

Federal insistence on security clearances means it takes on average four months to hire someone and procurement policies mean it can take eight months to open an office. Even then, the inquiry said in its interim report, the offices opened without the telephones, computers and Internet service needed because of foot-dragging by bureaucrats.

And Ottawa’s contract policies have meant it has been slow to pay cultural advisors or elders at the hearings or make timely payments for travel or out-of-pocket expenses. That makes it difficult to hire and keep Fire Keepers or Knowledge Keepers, positions that need to be filled if the inquiry is to deliver a family-first, non-colonial process.

This government may have its heart in the right place when it comes to Indigenous reconciliation. But muscling aside an entrenched bureaucracy that slows, rather than speeds, action, will take more than that.

Tim Harper writes on national affairs. tjharper77@gmail.com, Twitter: @nutgraf1

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