The father and sister of Jordan River Anderson were in the visitor's gallery on December 13 when members of Parliament gave their unanimous backing to a private members motion in support of Jordan's Principle, which calls for governments to put the needs of First Nation children first when jurisdictional disputes arise over whose responsibility it is to meet those needs.
The vote was a major victory in the campaign to have federal, provincial and territorial governments in Canada implement Jordan's Principle in an attempt to ensure First Nation children aren't caught in the middle of jurisdictional wrangling the way that Jordan was.
Jordan, who was from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, was born with medical problems and needed special care. Because the federal government is more willing to provide services to special needs children in care than to those living with their families, Jordan's family placed him in foster care in order to get him the services he required. The local child and family services staff found Jordan a foster family and worked to prepare for his eventual return to the community.
Because of his medical condition, Jordan was forced to spend the first two years of his life in the hospital before getting word from his doctors that his medical condition had stabilized enough that he could go home. That's when the provincial and federal governments began their discussions about who should pay for the special care he'd need in his home community, and decided Jordan should remain in the hospital until they made their decision. Jordan died at the age of 5 before that decision was ever made, never having known a home other than the hospital.
Under Jordan's Principle, whenever a question of jurisdictional responsibility arises related to provision of services for a First Nation child, and those services are readily available to other Canadian children, the government or department of first contact would pay for the services, then work to settle the jurisdictional dispute once the child's needs have been met.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS), the organization co-ordinating the campaign to have governments adopt Jordan's Principle, was thrilled to see the private members motion on Jordan's Principle receive so much support in the House.
"The most special time for me was really seeing Jordan's father and his sister in the gallery, finally getting some small measure of comfort in the tragedy that happened to Jordan." she said. "There's a real commitment to turn that into something positive for other children, and to make sure that Jordan's story goes heard, but more than being just heard, that it actually turns into a positive difference, not only for other kids in their community, but for Aboriginal kids in Canada and around the world. I've just had so much admiration for that family. They're wonderful, wonderful people."
While passing of the motion shows that support for Jordan's Principle is growing in Parliament, it is also growing at the grassroots level, Blackstock said. The FNCFCS Web site has a joint declaration of support for Jordan's Principle posted on it, and so far, close to 1,400 individuals and organizations have signed on.
"I think when people hear Jordan's story, they just know that implementing this principle in his memory is the right thing to do," Blackstock said.
The private members motion introduced on Dec. 13 was tabled by MP Jean Crowder, the New Democratic Party's Aboriginal Affairs critic, who first introduced a motion in support of Jordan's Principle in May of this year. Seeing the motion pass with unanimous support from the House was a very emotional experience for her, she said.
"It was a moment of celebration, and of a huge amount of respect for Jordan's family for their courage in having Jordan's name stand to represent all those other kids who were in Jordan's situation."
Crowder said she took up the cause of trying to get government to adopt Jordan's Principle as a way of safeguarding future generations of First Nation children.
"I do believe in the principle of it we don't make decisions for future generations, then we're never going to make a wise decision. And when we can't put the current group of children first, it doesn't give us much hope in terms of future generations of children," she said.
While passing of the motion in Parliament sends a signal that members of Parliament support the concept of Jordan's Principle, as a private members motion, it carries with it no obligation for government to spring into action. Crowder said her next step will be to continue pushing government to back up its words of support with something more tangible. She'd like to see the federal government sign a memorandum of understand with provincial governments that commits them to put the needs of children first.
Crowder said at least two provinces-British Columbia and Manitoba-have already expressed an interest in introducing a child-first policy. "And I think if we can get a couple of provinces to start working, then it will help the other provinces come along."
She hopes to reintroduce Jordan's Principle in the House in another form, and to meet with representatives from B.C. and Manitoba about how she can work with them to help implement Jordan's Principle. Crowder and the FNCFCS are also spreading the word to their network of grassroots supporters, calling on them to bring pressure to bear on federal, provincial and territorial governments.
"It has to be a multi-level approach, otherwise we won't get the kind of movement we need," she said. "People have to put the pressure on their own provincial governments, their own political representatives at the provincial and federal levels, and then on the federal government itself," she said. "It's by working together that we'll see some meaningful action on this."
"Jordan's message will not have been respected until other children stop being discriminated against," Blackstock added. "There are so many stories like Jordan's ... these children affected under this Jordan's Principle issue are being denied government services only because of who they are, and that shouldn't be OK in 2007."
Blackstock stressed that the only thing preventing the federal government from fully implementing Jordan's Principle seems to be a lack of political will.
"This could be done tonight," she said. "It does not need new legislation. It just needs a policy change and political will ... they don't need to strike committees. They don't need to talk to people. They don't even need to talk to First Nations, because First Nations have developed this policy and spoken and said it needs to be implemented immediately. What they need to do is do it. And it would make a huge difference for these children. I just really hope they do."