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First Nations Advocates Slam Canada’s ‘Illegal and Immoral’ Child Welfare System

Despite decades of lobbying on the issue, numerous studies, and recommendations by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the government has done little to improve the system.


Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on September 15 regarding First Nations child welfare. Photo by CP/Sean Kilpatrick

As they have for the last three decades, First Nations advocates are again sharply criticizing the Canadian government for continuing to discriminate against First Nations children, and failing to fix its "broken" child welfare system—despite two court orders to do so, and despite the Liberal government's stated dedication to Indigenous issues.

"I am profoundly disappointed we had to take the Canadian government to court to treat little children fairly," longtime advocate and executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society Cindy Blackstock said at a press event on Thursday, according to CBC.

Blackstock was in disbelief that despite two compliance orders since January, the government has done little to address a Human Rights Tribunal's findings that it is discriminating against First Nations children on reserve by giving them significantly less funding versus children in other areas of Canada—and that race and/or ethnic origin was a factor in that discrimination.

Advocates have been lobbying the government on the issue since 1998 and numerous independent reports over the decades have called on the government to fix its system.

"Why are they taking so long?" Blackstock asked.

Since that January decision, the Tribunal has issued two orders for the government to comply and fix the problem—but the agency responsible, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (previously known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, or AANDC), has yet to act.

"What they're doing is illegal, and immoral," Blackstock told CBC News. "We're talking about little kids."

READ MORE: An Indigenous Mom Explains Why She Doesn't Register Her Kids with the Government

A staggering six percent of the total on-reserve child population is in state care—almost eight times higher than the percentage of children in care living off reserves—with that number is as high as 11 to 14 percent in some regions. In 2006, according to one report, there were 257 reserves with no access to child care, and many communities didn't have the resources to raise 20 percent of their children from birth to age six.

The issue is growing more desperate as Indigenous youth are one of the fastest growing populations in Canada.

The Tribunal found that First Nations were "adversely impacted" by AANDC's provision of child and family services "and in some cases, denied those services as a result of AANDC's involvement; and; that race and/or national or ethnic origin are a factor in those adverse impacts or denial."

In one case that has drawn attention to the issue since the ruling, on four occasions Health Canada officials denied a 14-year-old Indigenous girl access to dental coverage, despite the fact that her dental issues were so severe that she risked losing her teeth. The third time she was denied was the same day as the Human Rights Tribunal's ruling, according to NDP MP Charlie Angus, who penned a letter imploring the government to do more.

"I know it was a mere coincidence in timing that your officials rejected her for the third time on the very day the Human Rights ruling came down," he wrote, "but as a symbolic gesture it speaks volumes. When we look at this young girl being rejected in the third round of appeal, I note that the overall rejection rates in this category are staggering—above 80 percent at level one, 99 percent at level two, and 100 percent at level three. If your officials reject every case that gets to the third round process, it speaks less to the merits of the individual case and more to a larger systemic problem within your department."

Even the agency responsible for the Indigenous child welfare system, the AANDC, has acknowledged the problem in its own documents.

"Our current system is BROKEN, i.e. piecemeal and fragmented," an AANDC presentation quoted in the Tribunal's findings stated. "The current system contributes to dysfunctional relationships, i.e. jurisdictional issues (at federal and provincial levels), lack of coordination, working at cross purposes, silo mentality."

"...The current program focus is on protection (taking children into care) rather than prevention (supporting the family)."

In last fall's election, the Liberals campaigned on numerous promises to address systemic issues including boil-water advisories and education for Indigenous people living on and off reserve, and the government has pledged $8.4 billion over five years toward solving those issues.

Canada's Indigenous child welfare system has its roots in the traumatic system of residential schools that removed children from their homes, attempted to strip them of their language and culture, and led to the deaths and abuse of many children.

According to a 2004 overview cited in the Tribunal's decision, "there are approximately three times the numbers of First Nations children in state care than there were at the height of residential schools in the 1940s."

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee that confronted Canada's racist history of residential schools recommended Canada address its child welfare system as one step toward reconciliation.

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