Canadian Human Rights Commission urges resolution in child welfare dispute

By The Canadian Press
September 20, 2016 - 2:30pm

OTTAWA — The Canadian Human Rights Commission said Tuesday it wants two prominent First Nations groups to resolve their dispute with the federal government over child welfare on reserves without resorting to legal action.

One of the groups, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, had asked the commission to register a decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal with the Federal Court — a possible precursor to contempt proceedings.

The tribunal decision, first issued in January, found that the federal Liberal government has been discriminating against First Nations children in the way it delivers child welfare services on reserves. Another compliance order was issued last week.

Frustrated with what it saw as a lack of action on the government's part, the society asked the commission to register the order with the Federal Court — a first step towards initiating contempt proceedings against the government.

Instead, the commission — which noted Tuesday that it led the litigation of the human rights case for nearly a decade — indicated that it would prefer to focus on solutions that do not require further legal battles.

"The tribunal's order has wide-ranging consequences and requires time to analyze and implement," chief commissioner Marie-Claude Landry said in a statement.

"The quickest way to help these children is to focus on concrete solutions that do not require further legal battles."

The society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint in 2007 arguing the federal government was failing to provide First Nations children the same level of welfare services that exist elsewhere, contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act.

They characterized it as discrimination on racial grounds — and after nine years, the tribunal agreed.

However, the society's executive director Cindy Blackstock, a longtime champion of First Nations child welfare, said the government has yet to abide by the decision and continues to discriminate against some 163,000 First Nations children living on reserves across Canada.

"You have a group of children who the federal government consciously decides are getting less public services than every other group in the country," Blackstock said Monday.

"They are racially discriminating against them … as a matter of law and they are failing to comply with legal orders. That, to me, is pretty clear cut."

Blackstock has indicated she would register the order with the Federal Court if the commissioner does not.

The commission said it serves as a bridge between parties to resolve human rights issues before they end in costly legal proceedings, noting it will closely monitor the case and press all parties to ensure the ruling is implemented in a "a realistic and meaningful way."

"We want to ensure the safety and well-being of every First Nations child — and to do this we need to avoid prolonging this litigation any further," Landry said.  

 Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, urged the government to finally take action and make things right.

"The argument that they don't have money is a shallow argument — the money is there," Sinclair said in an interview. "They have to stop spending it on other things and pay attention to this because this is a larger priority."

 Sinclair even likened the funding crisis on reserves to the residential school system, which for more than 100 years operated with the specific mandate of assimilating Aboriginal Peoples. The child welfare system on reserves is doing the same thing by taking away children from their families, he said.

"I don't think you can equate them at a legal perspective as the same thing, but in the long run, from a practical perspective, they're doing the very same thing."

—Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press

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