OTTAWA — An indigenous member of Finance Minister Bill Morneau's economic advisory council is taking issue with the federal government's claims that First Nations agencies lack the capacity to improve services for children and families on reserve.
The federal Liberals, who took part in a unanimous House of Commons vote Tuesday to support an NDP motion on First Nations child welfare, have repeatedly argued that a phased-in approach is necessary for spending while the government works to overhaul a broken system.
NDP MP Charlie Angus speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons on May 5, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Last week, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said a special ministerial representative — a Lakehead university professor and 2011 Liberal candidate —would lead that work along with the provinces, territories and child welfare agencies.
In the last budget, the government pledged $71 million in immediate relief.
Carol Anne Hilton, an entrepreneur tapped to help a group of prominent business leaders give fiscal advice to the government, said she finds the incremental approach alarming.
"I think the concerning piece is government officials pointing to ... agencies not having capacity to spend more than what they were given," Hilton said in an interview.
'A little bit alarming'
"I think that particular piece is a little bit alarming and speaks to a type of thinking that is not beneficial to support First Nations children or families."
Hilton said she was supportive of the NDP motion, which calls for an immediate injection of $155 million to ensure the government complies with an order from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to end racial discrimination and underfunding.
Denise Stonefish, the deputy grand chief for the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, praised the outcome of Tuesday's vote, but also called for immediate action.
"I think it was absolutely awesome that we had full support by the House and that they were no objections," she said. "Let's get moving and forward the much-needed funds to First Nations communities."
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Child welfare agencies do in fact have the capacity to spend more money, Stonefish said.
"If the native child and family services work with their catchment area, there would always be a way to spend those dollars on prevention," she said. "The need in our communities is so great."
NDP indigenous affairs critic Charlie Angus, who introduced the motion, said he was feeling both hopeful and anxious following its passage.
"In my gut, I feel a great level of unease," Angus said. "I've been very surprised by the way the government has been undermining the credibility of the numbers."
Angus looked close to tears as he pointed out a pin on his blazer with a picture of Sheridan Hookimaw — a 13-year-old who died by suicide in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat.
Justice Murray Sinclair greets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2015. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
"We've lost so many young people, so many," he said. "They're still dying. They're dying everyday so when Carolyn Bennett says she doesn't know if money is going to help children, I think of people like Sheridan."
Angus's motion also calls on the government to adopt Jordan's Principle, which says no aboriginal child should suffer denials, delays or disruptions of health services available to other children due to jurisdictional disputes.
The principle is named for Jordan Anderson, a Cree boy from Norway House, Man., who died in hospital in 2005 after jurisdictional disagreements kept him from spending his last years in home care.
'Economically the right thing to do'
First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock, a longtime champion of more funding for child services on reserves, said she won't be satisfied until she sees a difference at the grassroots level.
She also noted the synchronicity between the vote and Finance Minister Bill Morneau's fall financial statement, which he delivered in the Commons immediately afterward.
"Part of the economic update should be an investment — an immediate investment of $155 million because Canadians are not only ready to do the right thing for kids, it is economically the right thing to do," Blackstock said.