What will it take for Ottawa finally to tackle Indigenous child-welfare crisis?

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – If Justin Trudeau means what he says about building a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, he should start doing less to defend his government and more to defend the First Nations children it has for too long let down.
May 29, 2017.   Editorial

When the chief of the Wapekeka First Nation discovered last summer that several children in the community had struck a suicide pact, he contacted the federal government and asked for help.

Ottawa submitted the request to a complex bureaucratic assessment process, which was not yet complete when, six months later, two 12-year-old girls from Wapekeka, Jolynn Winter and Chantel Fox, fulfilled their pact and killed themselves.

The government’s lethargy in this case, and in so many others where Indigenous children in crisis are asked to wait as officials wind themselves up in red tape and jurisdictional disputes, is not only a shameful moral failure, it’s also illegal.

Last January, the Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa was failing in its legal duty to apply Jordan’s Principle, which says that no First Nations child should be denied welfare services due to jurisdictional disputes. Three months later, the tribunal found the feds still had not taken action and issued a compliance order. In October, it issued a second.

Last week, the tribunal ruled yet again that the Trudeau government, despite its lofty talk of Indigenous reconciliation, continues to break the law. Otherwise, the tribunal concluded, the Wapekeka girls might still be alive.

Jordan’s Principle is named after Jordan Anderson, a five-year-old boy who died in hospital in 2005 while Ottawa and Manitoba squabbled over which government should cover the medical costs of moving him to foster care. Such disputes are disturbingly common and have contributed to a persistent inequity in the provision of child-welfare services to First Nations communities, where the need is often greatest. Jordan’s Principle seeks to redress this injustice.

The tribunal has been perfectly clear that the principle, which was adopted into law in 2007, applies to all First Nations children in all jurisdictional disputes. The department from which a service is first sought must provide that service; it can seek remuneration from other governments or departments later.

Yet Ottawa has again and again tried to narrow the definition, claiming the principle applies only to children on reserves or living with a disability or dealing with a critical short-term condition. The feds’ weaseling violates both the letter and the spirit of the principle. In its latest ruling, the tribunal makes clear that this failure may have cost lives.

In response, the government issued a statement pointing to its commitment to spend $382.5 million over three years to comply with Jordan’s Principle and said it would be “carefully reviewing” the tribunal’s decision. What it didn’t do was commit to immediately and fully apply the principle. The promised money is no doubt welcome, but 17 months and three compliance orders after the original tribunal ruling, anything less than a clear commitment to abide by the law is unacceptable.

The tribunal has attributed the delay to bureaucratic sclerosis rather than lack of political will. But surely political will, if strong enough, can spur change in even the most change-resistant bureaucracy.

The federal government has spent nearly $1 million defending itself against these tribunal complaints over the last year. It lost every time. If Justin Trudeau means what he says about building a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, he should start doing less to defend his government and more to defend the First Nations children it has for too long let down.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2017/05/29/what-will-it-take-for-ottawa-finally-to-tackle-indigenous-child-welfare-crisis-editorial.html

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