First Nations Confront Ottawa over Discrimination, Child Welfare Funding: First Nations Confront Feds on Child Welfare

By Scoffield, Heather | The Canadian Press, February 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

First Nations Confront Ottawa over Discrimination, Child Welfare Funding: First Nations Confront Feds on Child Welfare


Scoffield, Heather, The Canadian Press


OTTAWA - After months of playing soft ball with the federal government in the hopes of improving conditions on reserves, First Nations are now switching to a hard-ball approach.

Child welfare advocates, the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Human Rights Commission are confronting the federal government in federal court this week over what they say is systematic -- and discriminatory -- underfunding for child welfare.

They say the case has broad implications for the funding of education, social services and policing, as well as the ability of First Nations people to use the courts to claim respect for their basic human rights.

"It's got implications in every other area of equity," says Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society that is leading the charge.

The case has been brewing for years, but has been overshadowed by the more cooperative approach that dominated First Nations-government relations for the past year.

With a First Nations-Ottawa summit in the works for this winter, the federal government and native leaders agreed to a joint process that promised to set up panels on education, governance and jobs.

Both sides heralded the process as a way to put an end to the legal wrangling and confrontational negotiation that has long dominated the relationship.

But the summit came and went without concrete actions to improve conditions on reserves, leaving many chiefs pinning their hopes on the upcoming budget, political pressure and ongoing lawsuits as ways to push Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make immediate changes.

"I would like to see him do something, not just say something," says Blackstock.

This week's Federal Court hearings will come with news releases, a Valentine's Day rally, singing, websites, letter-writing and children making snow angels on Parliament Hill.

The case itself is far more complex.

Three days of hearings are scheduled to start today (Monday) although a decision is not widely expected immediately.

If the Caring Society and its supporters get their way, they will persuade the court that the Canadian human rights tribunal should hear out the arguments of both sides in their entirety.

They want affirmation that federal services provided to First Nations are directly comparable to services provided by provincial governments to all other Canadians.

Then, they plan to argue that native kids receive significantly less funding than off-reserve kids in terms child and family services -- despite the fact that First Nations children are far more likely to be in state care than non-native children, and that the roots of child welfare problems on reserves run very deep.

"Equality should be the floor, not the ceiling," said Blackstock. …

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