(Courtesy First Nations Child and Family Caring Society)
“Discrimination is when the government doesn’t think you’re worth the money.”
According to Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, these words were uttered by a child her organization was working with.
“We don’t want First Nations children to feel dehumanized by the federal government’s treatment of them,” said Blackstock.
To that end, the Caring Society and Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) in 2007.
Nearly 15 years later, a $40-billion agreement-in-principle has been reached with the federal government to finally address discrimination in a child welfare system that, according to Blackstock, has taken First Nations children at a rate 17 times higher than average.
This reality has caused untold suffering and relates directly to the government’s failure to provide Indigenous communities the resources needed to transcend systemic poverty and state-inflicted intergenerational trauma.
“Sometimes things happen to all of us … but when you’re a mother or a father and child welfare gets involved with you, and there’s something relating to poverty, that shouldn’t be why you take a child away from a family,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Manitoba regional chief Cindy Woodhouse.
“At least there’s going to be prevention dollars to try to prevent that,” she said. “To try and sometimes give families a lift up instead of taking their children away.”
The agreement-in-principle promises $20 billion to reform the First Nations Child and Family Services program on reserves – including funding for a range of prevention tools – and Jordan’s Principle, which is meant to ensure First Nations children are put ahead of jurisdictional disputes.
Jordan’s Principle is named for Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old Norway House Cree Nation child who died in hospital in 2005 while Canada and Manitoba quibbled about which government was responsible for home care.
Funding for support services for families will be increased to $2,500 per person on-reserve, which will not go to individuals directly, and supports will be included to help those who grew up in the system transition to adulthood up to age 25.
An additional $19.8 billion will be used to compensate victims of the child welfare system on reserves and in the Yukon dating back to April 1991. Compensation is expected to have a floor of $40,000 per recipient, the amount ordered in 2016 by the CHRT – an order the federal government appealed.
“I think people have talked about that, the role of the tribunal, and whether the tribunal was in the position of determining compensation,” said Canada’s minister of Indigenous services, Patty Hajdu.
“All I can say is at the end of the day, the litigation – and I said this the first day I was appointed – litigation was going to get us nowhere, and if the goal is a healthier, stronger Canada where everybody has a fair chance to succeed, staying in court and fighting in court is just harming people and harming communities,” she said.
The settlement, if finalized, would take effect April 1, 2022, and would be the largest of its kind in Canadian history.
“It’s an admission of systemic failure,” said Hajdu. “It’s an admission of decades of denial that this discrimination existed, and it’s an end to this discrimination once and for all.”
She said the money allotted for reform will empower communities to pursue self-determination and expressed hope that the situation will be a clear lesson to the government in general.
“It was refreshing for me to see minister Hajdu upon her appointment really recognize that the discrimination is still going on,” said Blackstock.
However, the promises for reform remain words on paper until they are implemented, she said, and the government still has work to do to prove its sincerity.
“They are saying that litigation isn’t the way to go, but they themselves are the ones doing the litigation,” said Blackstock. “So I think it’s very important that they bring their actions into alignment with what they’re saying.”
Blackstock also made the point that fixing inequalities in the first place would have been far cheaper for the government than the compensation that is now necessary.
She finds it reassuring that the tribunal is in place to hold the government accountable if necessary. Her organization will be there along the way, too, she said, to help ensure the government lives up to its obligations.
“When I can walk into a community and a child or young person can tell me ‘My life is better today than it was yesterday,’ that’s what I’m waiting for,” said Blackstock.
In the meantime, stories of harm caused by the system abound.
“I know many personal stories unfortunately,” said Woodhouse. “I have one cousin who called me (this week). He was in over 100 foster homes in the 18 years he was in foster care. One hundred. How do you do that to a child?”
She also related the story of a friend who was taken by the system when her mother died. Her father was still alive, but the system did not bother to look for him, and the authorities simply took her.
“This man looked for his daughter for years,” said Woodhouse.
He finally found her when she was a young adult. He calls her every day and tells her he loves her, but they have a language barrier because she did not grow up with him.
Reflecting on systemic discrimination, Woodhouse also recalled when she had her own child and for no apparent reason a social worker came with a nurse to visit her while her husband was at home showering. She found this threatening, given the power differential and the history of wrongful intervention.
“We have to be allowed to parent and not have racism and discrimination,” said Woodhouse.