Canada fails First Nations children

Posted on February 20, 2015 in Equality Delivery System – Opinion Column
February 19, 2015.   By Geoffrey Johnston

Life is hard for children living on First Nations reserves, where poverty, poor water quality, teen suicide, and substandard housing are all too common.

As if that weren’t bad enough, First Nations children must also fight for access to health and social services that non-indigenous Canadian families take for granted.

According to UNICEF Canada, when it comes to accessing health and social services, “jurisdictional disputes between levels of government involving First Nations children are common, affecting hundreds of children every year.”

Too often, government bureaucrats seem more concerned with determining which level of government should pay for First Nations health and social services than with helping vulnerable kids in need. And intra-governmental squabbles that pit departments against one another also cause unacceptable delays.

Jordan’s Principle

On Dec. 12, 2007, the House of Commons unanimously passed the Jordan’s Principle motion, which UNICEF Canada concisely describes as “a child-first principle to resolve intergovernmental disputes affecting the lives of First Nations children.”

The historic motion endorsed the idea that meeting the health needs of indigenous children should be a top priority. And Parliament made it clear that the issue of which level of government should pay for health services should not impede the delivery of those services.

Unfortunately, much more work still needs to be done on this file. Last week, a bracing report was published, laying bare the social inequities that continue to deprive First Nations children of timely care and assistance.

The document represents the culmination of the efforts of the Jordan’s Principle Working Group, “a collaboration between the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Paediatric Society, UNICEF Canada, and a team of researchers based at McGill University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Manitoba.”

Jordan’s Principle is named in honour of Jordan Rivers Anderson, a First Nations child born with severe health problems who died at the age of five. Jordan, who was a member of the Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, lived his entire life in hospital.

Jordan “encountered tragic delays in services due to governmental jurisdictional disputes that denied him an opportunity to live outside of a hospital setting before his death in 2005,” the report stated. The document is entitled “Without denial, delay or disruption: Ensuring First Nations children’s access to equitable services through Jordan’s Principle.”

“If he hadn’t been an on-reserve First Nations child, he would’ve gone home,” said David Morley, president of UNICEF Canada, in a telephone interview. “That’s what so frustrating.”

According to Morley, many First Nations children have health issues, “and then they get caught in a system where they can’t get the services that every other Canadian child would get, because governments are squabbling.”

“Bureaucratic squabbling has meant the wishes of Parliament, and I like to think of all Canadians, that all Canadian children should have equitable access to services have not been met,” Morley declared.

The gaps in access to health-related services for First Nations kids are shocking. For example, the report cited a funding dispute over a wheelchair for a paraplegic child. Health Canada refused to provide the funds to purchase the assistive device, so the First Nations child welfare agency involved in the case “deemed that fundraising was the only feasible option to provide the child with what he required.”

Given the systemic gaps facing First Nations children, the appalling conditions on many reserves and the myriad of other problems, we have to ask, why is this so? Is systemic racism part of the problem?

“I think we have to look at that and consider that,” Morley said thoughtfully. “Why is it so systemic? Why is it this one particular group that seems to be having a harder time than everybody else?”

Morley is no radical and understands that Canadians are people of goodwill. “I don’t mean that you, or me, or we, are overtly racist,” he said. “But there is something in the system that clearly isn’t working.”

The UNICEF-sponsored report contends that there’s “growing recognition that the governmental response to Jordan’s Principle does not reflect the vision advanced by First Nations and endorsed by the House of Commons.”

In addition, the Assembly of First Nations has condemned “the narrow operational definition of Jordan’s Principle adopted by the federal government.”

However, the federal government has a different take on the situation.

“Our government is committed to the health and safety of all Canadians, including First Nations children,” stated a spokesperson for Bernard Valcourt, minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

“While there are currently no outstanding jurisdictional disputes involving Jordan’s Principle in Canada, we believe that the best way to ensure First Nation children and families get the support they need is by working with willing partners and continue engaging with provinces, territories and First Nations to collaborate on implementing Jordan’s Principle,” Emily Hillstrom wrote in an email statement.

“We have reached agreements to implement Jordan’s Principle with four provinces — Manitoba (2012), Saskatchewan (2009), British Columbia (2011) and New Brunswick (2011),” Hillstrom said on behalf of Valcourt.

“These arrangements outline commitments to developing dispute avoidance processes to ensure continuity of care for children with multiple disabilities.” As for the provinces not covered by these deals, Hillstrom said they “already have mechanisms in place to implement Jordan’s Principle.”

According to the Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson, the federal government “also provides over $2.5 billion every year towards programs and services for aboriginal health; this includes initiatives such as 24/7 access to essential nursing services in 80 remote communities and home and community care in 500 First Nations and Inuit communities.”

Report of the Auditor General

Jordan’s Principle focuses on health issues. But there are a myriad of other problems that are inextricably linked to First Nations health problems. And they merit discussion.

Living conditions on First Nations reserves are not good. Over the years, the auditor general of Canada has highlighted the many problems on reserves, including unsafe drinking water, high school dropout rates and inequitable access to social services.

The new report’s sponsors — AFN, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and UNICEF Canada — recommend that the senior levels of government immediately clarify jurisdictional responsibilities and eliminate “the underfunding identified in individual cases.” By doing so, governments could “prevent denials, delays and disruptions in services for other children in similar circumstances.”

However, with the 2015 federal election campaign unofficially underway, it seems unlikely that intergovernmental negotiations on First Nations health will be undertaken anytime soon.

Nevertheless, UNICEF Canada’s David Morley remains optimistic. He believes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic apology, delivered in Parliament on behalf of Canada for the harm caused by the residential schools policy, is one reason for optimism.

Another is the work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the devastating legacy of residential schools. Morley said that the commission has demonstrated Canada’s goodwill and willingness to move forward on righting historic wrongs.

“I think there’s a recognition that things need to be better and that we are all responsible,” Morley said.

The Assembly of First Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

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