Is the federal government a champion of reconciliation or of discrimination?

Posted on June 27, 2017 in Health Delivery System – Opinion/Commentary – Canada is showing a deficit in its moral character by failing to comply with human rights tribunal orders and protecting Indigenous children.
June 27, 2017.   By

When the federal government is discriminating against 165,000 First Nations children and refuses to stop, it is not just a “blight” on government — it defines its moral character.

As Nelson Mandela has reminded all of us, governments are best measured by how they treat their children. The government of Canada has failed to comply with four of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders issued since January 2016 to immediately cease its discriminatory provision of First Nations child welfare services and stop dolling out extra yardage of red tape when First Nations children access public services.

This past Friday, the Toronto Star featured a story about Wapekeka First Nation declaring a state of emergency due to a third suicide death of a 12-year-old child in 6 months. In the tribunal’s most recent decision, issued in May, the deaths of two of the children were linked with Canada’s non-compliance with the tribunal’s previous orders.

Specifically, the tribunal noted that Wapekeka First Nation submitted an urgent proposal to Health Canada for mental health services in July 2016 after it heard about a suicide pact among young girls in the community. Health Canada was still reviewing the proposal six months later when the two girls died of suicide in January.

In response to the tragedies, Health Canada officials said the Wapekeka proposal came at an “awkward time” in the federal budget cycle. As the Tribunal noted “[W]hile Canada provided assistance once the Wapekeka suicides occurred, the flaws in the Jordan’s Principle process left any chance of preventing the Wapekeka tragedy unaddressed and the tragic events only triggered a reactive response.”

Last week, the Wapekeka band manager said Health Canada only provided a portion of the promised funding and the money ran out weeks ago and no new funding has arrived. Now another child has died.

On Friday, the ministers of Health and Indigenous Affairs announced they were going to hold a news conference. I hoped they would be inspired by the crisis in Wapekeka to announce the government is finally going to take decisive action to comply with the tribunal’s orders — but they didn’t.

Instead, the ministers announced an appeal of the tribunal’s most recent order. They said they were appealing because the tribunal ruled out clinical case conferences. The tribunal has done nothing of the sort — rather the tribunal said Canada cannot delay the provision of public services to First Nations children because of pass-the-buck payment-related case conferences, such as the “awkward” one linked to the deaths of the girls in Wapekeka.

Health Minister Jane Philpott went on to suggest the tribunal made a factual error, saying Canada denied the Wapekeka proposal. While there was no formal denial, Health Canada simply did not respond for months, despite the obvious life or death consequence.

The effect of long delays in urgent service approvals and service denials are too often the same — the tragic loss of children’s lives. Instead of excusing the government’s unlawful conduct, the minister should have apologized and taken immediate steps to ensure no child is forced to fight with Ottawa for services as they fight for their lives.

Canada’s 150th anniversary is looming and it is a good time to remember that citizenship is not about having blind faith in the government in the face of such clear and compelling evidence of wrongdoing; it is about loving the values that define the country enough to stand up for them.

If Canadians want to teach the children to “stand on guard” they better not see us sitting down when it really counts. When governments racially discriminate against little kids, there are no adult innocent bystanders.

Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada and a professor at McGill University.

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