Ottawa hasn’t earned trust on indigenous child welfare
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – The government’s energy would be better spent protecting the health and safety of indigenous children than pushing back at the tribunal.
March 20, 2017. Editorial
When the Trudeau government goes before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal yet again this week, it will make two arguments that appear to be in conflict with its stated commitment to indigenous reconciliation.
First, it will contend that, before Ottawa can address the urgent crisis of child welfare on reserves, as the tribunal ordered it to do more than a year ago, it will have to complete an indefinitely long consultation process with First Nations, provinces and other stakeholders.
Second, it will argue that the tribunal has no authority to compel the government to act, but should “operate under a presumption that [its] rulings will be executed with reasonable diligence or good faith.”
The first argument may have held water at the time of the ruling. More than a year later, it looks a lot like a delay tactic. The government should do as it promised and, as the tribunal’s legally binding order demands, immediately close the funding gap. The second amounts to a request for trust, which the government has not earned.
Ottawa’s slow response has been a persistent source of shame, particularly for a government that so often touts its lofty promises on indigenous issues.
When the tribunal ruled in January of last year that Ottawa racially discriminates against children living on reserves, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the decision and vowed action. His government’s first budget promised more than $600 million to address the problem.
But the commitment was not quite as it seemed. Much of the money was backloaded, not to be released until after the next election, despite the urgency. Indigenous communities across the country are experiencing child suicide epidemics. Persistent poverty and lack of services continue to cause too many indigenous children to be removed from their homes. In April, the tribunal issued a compliance order. In October, it issued a second.
In November, the New Democrats tabled a motion in the House of Commons reprimanding the government for failing to act and calling on it immediately to invest the $155 million the tribunal said was needed. After some initial resistance, Liberal MPs unanimously voted in favour, essentially admitting the government’s wrongdoing and recommitting to relief.
But here again the promise went unfulfilled. As the federal budget approached, the government said it lacked the information necessary to make an effective investment and would first have to undertake a consultation with its “partners.” Yet under cross-examination last month, federal officials were unable to say with any specificity what sort of information they needed or how quickly they planned to find it.
Of course, governments should ensure they get the most out of their investments. But as the tribunal has repeatedly ruled, there is an urgent child-welfare crisis happening right now on reserves. There is no shortage of research and reports on what needs to be done – and no shortage of willing partners. And it’s not as if there’s no money. Last year, the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs spent $900 million less than was allocated to it.
The government hasn’t earned the trust it’s requesting. Its energy would be better spent protecting the health and safety of indigenous children than pushing back at the tribunal.