OTTAWA — It was a huge victory for aboriginal children in this country and a day when historical wrongs could begin to be made right.
So why were there so many questions clouding a day being heralded by the country’s First Nations?
Why had it taken a nine-year fight and a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision to determine what seemed plain, that successive governments had been guilty of racial discrimination in its funding of First Nations child welfare services in this country? Instead, we had governments that ignored reports and recommendations by the auditor general, fought over nickels instead of equity, and had to be hauled into court to do right.
And what does it say about this country that, in 2016, the word “discrimination” is now enshrined by a quasi-legal tribunal when it comes to the treatment of successive generations of aboriginal children by our governments?
The tribunal, in its ruling released Tuesday, agreed support from the federal government for child welfare on reserves is much lower than the support provincial governments give to children off reserves. The gap is estimated between 20 and 30 per cent, even though needs on reserves are more acute.
It was simply, says Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, discrimination as fiscal policy.
“This is our Mississippi,’’ she said.
It is Blackstock who embarrassed the previous Conservative government by making this issue a human rights test case, and the government opposed her with ferocity. Rather than remedy the inequity, it spent more than $5 million fighting Blackstock. She charged bureaucrats were tailing her in cyberspace, spying on her and trying to intimidate her.
So she took those allegations — much of it revealed because she won access to her own files under information laws — to the human rights tribunal, and although some of the allegations were dismissed, she was awarded $20,000 in damages for her treatment, largely because she was denied access to a meeting by a vindictive federal bureaucrat.
That is behind her now. Tuesday’s ruling, she said, was all about the children.
“It is only because of their race and/or national or ethnic origin that they suffer the adverse impacts . . . . in the provision of child and family services,’’ the Tribunal ruled. “Furthermore, these adverse impacts perpetuate the historical disadvantage and trauma suffered by aboriginal people, in particular as a result of the residential schools system.’’
Canadians felt they could look the other way at the horrors of the residential schools, said Blackstock, saying they felt that didn’t happen under their watch.
This discriminatory system did happen under their watch, she says, although most were never made aware of the inequities perpetrated on aboriginal children.
The line from underfunding led directly to aboriginal children in foster care. First Nations children spent more than 66 million nights away from their families since 1989, the equivalent of 187,000 years of lost childhood away from parents, Blackstock said. Today, First Nations are three times more likely to be in care than during the height of the residential schools.
“In this great country, there is no room for racism or discrimination,’’ said Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
But now equality meets budgetary restraints.
For a government that has vowed to reset and restore relations with First Nations, a bill of millions of dollars was just added to that pledge because the ruling by the tribunal is binding. There is also a provision for up to $20,000 in compensation for those hurt by the funding disparity dating back to 2006. Blackstock’s organization is calling for an injection of $109 million per year, plus inflation, to level the playing field, dating back to 2012.
The impact of the ruling is wide-reaching.
The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, for example, are in a separate legal battle with the federal government over the case of twins with special needs who had to be bused off reserve to a school in nearby Cayuga because the First Nations school could not handle their needs. The federal government also refused to pay the special education costs for the boys, Sloan and Marvin, a cost that could not be absorbed by the First Nations’ special education budget. They were uprooted, taken from their school and friends because of a funding shortfall.
The chief, R. Stacey Laforme, said Tuesday’s ruling gives him hope that the case of the twins can be removed from the court system and they will ultimately be allowed to return to their home community to continue their schooling.
“The truth is, I am ecstatic,’’ he told me. “The other truth is that I am a little bit sad that we have had to go to this length for equitable treatment. It’s 2016.’’