Monday, November 16, 2009

Canadian citizenship, second class

Another significant omission from Jason Kenney's shiny new booklet for aspiring citizens: there are levels of citizenship in Canada. Just ask our Native people,
remorselessly played with by a succession of governments, impoverished and neglected, unable even to get decent schools out of the current regime. Canada is one of only three countries in the world (Australia has since ratified) that have taken an international stand against Native rights.

A potentially explosive case, two years in preparation, is now before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It is a challenge on behalf of a group of particularly vulnerable second-class citizens--Native children living on reserves. The
complainants' arguments appear to be powerful indeed, and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, upon receipt of the complaint, forwarded it immediately to the Tribunal for adjudication.

Some preliminary procedural matters were disposed of in August and September, with the full case scheduled for today. But without a word of warning or explanation, the new Harper-appointed Chair of the Tribunal, Shirish P. Chotalia, vacated the hearings on November 6. And so the dreadful plight of children on reserves continues, with no remedy in sight.

How many people know that Native children, who comprise 3.8 percent of the Canadian population, account for 30 percent of the children in foster care? Yet the funds provided by the federal government for children's services on reserves (a federal responsibility) consistently lag equivalent provincial funding to non-Native children by 22 percent.

That's systemic discrimination. In 2008, the office of the Auditor-General slammed the government for its systemic neglect of Native kids. The report concludes, in part:

Our audit found that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada does not have assurance that the First Nations Child and Family Services Program funds child welfare services for on-reserve First Nations children and families that are culturally appropriate and reasonably comparable with those normally provided off reserves in similar circumstances. In most provinces we visited, many on-reserve children and families do not always have access to the child welfare services defined in relevant provincial legislation and available to those living off reserves.

At stake is
between $80 million to $100 million annually for First Nations children. We aren't talking extra funding here, but simply the amount that would bring these children's services up to the level accorded off-reserve children.

The complainants are the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, an umbrella organization for all First Nations child and family services agencies carrying out child protection work on reserves across the country. Cindy Blackstock is the Executive Director of the FNCFCS. In her eloquent opening statement to the Tribunal, she noted that the chronic underfunding implicates past Liberal governments as well as the current Conservative one, and explains why they brought the case:

It is important to underscore that this case was not our first choice. It was filed simply as a last resort after ten years of trying to work cooperatively with the federal government to get them to treat First Nations children equitably. Our first job dated back to the turn of the millennium in what is called the Joint National Policy Review completed in 2000. This report found that the federal child welfare funding was 22% less than that received by other children. Four years the Wen:de series of reports found that the funding on reserve needed to be increased by 109 million dollars per year to achieve basic equity (excluding Ontario). The Auditor General in 2008 found the federal government’s old funding formula known as "the directive" to be inequitable and their new formula to be inequitable and not tied to the needs of First Nations children on reserve. Since the time of the Directive, the federal government has advanced something called the "enhanced funding formula" which was also reviewed by the Honourable Auditor General of Canada and in her report she find that too to be inequitable. So we have had numerous solutions that have been affordable to the government and these solutions were announced at times when the federal government was running a surplus budget in the billions of dollars and at times when the federal government was spending billions to stimulate the economy using "shovel ready projects." But it seems no matter what the financial situation of the government; the equality of First Nations children did not receive the attention that was required.

What is most important for me, and the Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations is that the children could no longer wait. There are more First Nations children in care today, Honourable Chair, than there were in residential schools at the height of their operations by a factor of three. [emphasis added]

The government appears to be in direct contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The cultural assimilation of the residential school period survives in another guise. Three out of four children removed from their homes on reserves are placed in non-Native venues. The UNCRC, however, is explicit on this point: states removing children from their homes must "pay due regard to the desirability of continuity in the child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background."

The UNCRC also binds member states to "always ensure that the principle of the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration in any alternative care placement of indigenous children." But Blackstock, in a 2007 report to the Senate, noted:

Many of the First Nations agencies will tell you that it is not a problem to get $300 a day to put a child into foster care, but try to give $25 to a family so they can afford to feed the child and keep him or her safely in their home, and it is not possible under the current formula.

Separating children from their families is normally considered a last resort, and in fact for other Canadian children, all other measures--prevention, alternate arrangements--must be exhausted before they are removed from the home. But this is not the case for families on reserves.

The author of a recent article notes:

[T]he most tragic aspect of this situation is that the vast majority of children are taken into care because of ‘neglect.’ When one closely examines the definition of the term and its key drivers—poverty, inadequate housing and addiction—it is debatable whose ‘neglect’ that is. In the words of the National Children’s Alliance, "It is important to note that two of the three factors are largely outside of parental control."

Readers are invited to learn more about this case and to list themselves as "witnesses" to indicate their concern. Please sign the petition. I'll be keeping you all posted on developments, and the reasons for the Chair's unilateral decision once I learn them.

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