The Canadian Human Rights Commission has received more than 300 complaints from aboriginal people and First Nations groups since 2008, when legislation was changed to allow the commission to look at issues such as reserve housing and federal funding for reserve services.
"Aboriginal peoples, First Nations in particular, are looking at the Canadian Human Rights Commission as being a potential, as a catalyst for change of the living conditions on reserve," says David Langtry, the acting chief commissioner.
The Canadian Human Rights Act was amended in 2008 to include issues under the Indian Act, which had previously been excluded. The revised legislation applied immediately to the federal government, the commission says, while First Nations governments were given three years to prepare for the transition.
One of the complaints comes from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, in southern Ontario, where two young boys with learning disabilities need special education, equipment and supervision at school.
The federal government provides a certain amount of money every year for education, but Chief Bryan LaForme says there's a ceiling, with no flexibility for unique cases.
"If we lived on the other side of the tracks, that would be open and our young people — the special ed students — there would be no issues as to cost. That would be provided by the province for those young people," LaForme says.
The chief filed a complaint about the issue with the commission and recently learned it's going to a tribunal.
"There was no other avenue to take our complaint to until the legislation was passed about human rights becoming effective for First Nations."
New obligations under act
Laforme says First Nations also need resources, such as legal expertise, to help them resolve allegations of discrimination now that local bands have obligations and accountability under the Human Rights Act.
Langtry said there are many issues facing First Nations, particularly on reserves, pointing to concerns about everything from access to clean water, health, education, policing and child welfare.
He has been told there "could be a great reluctance to make a complaint because that person has to continue to live in that community"
But complaints have been filed — 162 against First Nations governments and 150 against the federal government.
One case involving the federal government was brought by the Assembly of First Nations and a child welfare group, who allege that funding for child welfare services on reserves is discriminatory because it's less than funding provided by provinces and territories for non-aboriginal children off-reserve.
In April, the Federal Court rejected the federal government's attempts to prevent First Nations groups from arguing for better funding for child welfare on reserves.
The federal government had tried to block the case, saying federal and provincial funding levels for services couldn't be compared.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal initially sided with the government’s view and dismissed the case. But the Federal Court disagreed and ordered the tribunal to hold a new hearing with a new panel. The attorney general has appealed the Federal Court's ruling.