Cindy Blackstock is “just overwhelmed” by the decision delivered Tuesday April 26 by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
“The tribunal is really putting the needs of First Nations children first and reminding the government of the real meaning of Jordan’s Principle and the necessity of taking action now to relieve the suffering of these children who are in child welfare care or whose families are in contact with the child welfare system. I hope the government reacts quickly and thoroughly to the tribunal’s decision,” said Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
In its 15-page ruling on the continuation of the remedial order, CHRT members Sophie Marchildon and Edward Lustig said the federal government was not working quickly enough to offer up immediate relief for First Nations Child and Family Services agencies and programs. The remedial order is the result of the CHRT’s Jan. 26 decision, in which it upheld claims by Blackstock’s organization and the Assembly of First Nations that Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada underfunded First Nations family and child services agencies on reserve and in the Yukon and too narrowly implemented Jordan’s Principle.
The panel wrote, “The Complainants and Commission requested INAC to immediately remove the most discriminatory aspects of the funding schemes it uses to fund FNFCS Agencies under the FNFCS Program; and, in response, the Panel ordered INAC to cease its discriminatory practises and reform the FNFCS Program to reflect the findings in the Decision…. There is still uncertainty amongst the parties and the Panel as to how the Federal government’s response to the Decision addresses the findings...”
The panel says the action it instructed the government to undertake immediately now seems to have been pushed into mid-term relief.
That’s not good enough, the panel said, directing INAC to provide “more clarity … moving forward to ensure its orders are effectively and meaningfully implemented.” That clarity will come in a report to the panel in four weeks’ time and then ongoing reporting to allow the panel to supervise implementation of its orders.
However, INAC has two weeks to report to the panel on the implementation of Jordan’s Principle. The panel was firm in its criticism of the federal government, saying, “The order is to “immediately implement,” not immediately start discussions to review the definition in the long-term.” The panel noted there was already a “workable” definition of Jordan’s Principle. Jordan’s Principle calls for jurisdictional disputes over funding to be put secondary to the child’s best interest.
“I think the tribunal is disappointed that their order hasn’t been fulfilled and, I think, that’s why they want to hear back, for example, on Jordan’s Principle, within two weeks from the government to confirm the order has been implemented,” said Blackstock.
Compensation is another issue that the panel raised. The 2016 federal budget allocated $634.8 million over five years for the FNFCS program, with $71.1 million coming in 2016-17. The government has also said there are additional dollars for other actions.
When the budget was delivered in March, Blackstock was vocal in her criticism of a figure she felt fell “far short” of being able to immediately address the disparities.
“What the tribunal is saying is that we need to understand what’s in that budget better and then we need you to provide this information,” said Blackstock. She adds that the budget “does not override a binding legal order.”
In her concluding remarks, panel chairperson Sophie Marchildon said, “In dealing with the remaining remedial issues in this case, we should continue to aim for peace and respect. More importantly, I urge everyone involved to ponder the true meaning of reconciliation and how we can achieve it.”
Blackstock says she is optimistic.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what (the government does) next. I was very hopeful when they were elected and I do feel the minister (Carolyn Bennett) is really heartfelt in wanting to make change, but those heartfelt messages need to translate into real change for kids on the ground. That’s what I’m looking for,” said Blackstock.
The federal government has 30 days to file a judicial review.
A spokesman for INAC said the department was not yet prepared to comment on the matter.