OTTAWA — An outspoken child advocate is accusing the federal government of dragging its feet in implementing a funding principle aimed at ensuring all First Nations children are able to access necessary services.
At the heart of the dispute is Cindy Blackstock, a long-standing champion of the rights of indigenous children, and Jordan's principle — named for a five-year-old boy who died in hospital in 2005 as the federal and Manitoba governments squabbled over who should cover his home-care costs.
Cindy Blackstock speaks at a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2016 regarding First Nations child welfare. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Blackstock is taking issue with documents from February 2016 that show the federal government explored different options for applying the principle, which holds that no indigenous child should suffer denials, delays or disruptions of health services available to other children due to jurisdictional disputes.
Ottawa was ordered to comply with the principle in January by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal after a nine-year battle led by Blackstock's group, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and the Assembly of First Nations.
In the documents, the government describes the various choices as a "menu of possible options" for abiding by the tribunal's ruling, including the cost and policy ramifications of each.
For Blackstock, those choices add up to nothing short of discrimination.
"They are exploring ways to make a public relations gesture on Jordan's principle but falling short on compliance."
"They are exploring ways to make a public relations gesture on Jordan's principle but falling short on compliance," she said in an interview.
There remains a chronic lack of mental health services for indigenous youth across Canada, Blackstock said. She cited the example of Wapekeka First Nation, a remote northern Ontario reserve where two 12-year-old girls died by suicide earlier this month.
"These mental health services are available for every other kid and they are not available to First Nations kids," she said. "The government knows about it and yet they are not paying for it, with tragic results."
For its part, the Liberal government says it is abiding by the tribunal's decision, citing the July announcement of $382 million over three years to help First Nations children living on reserve deal with disabilities or short-term conditions.
Liberals say they are taking action
Health Canada is working to ensure resources are in place to reach families and identify all cases where First Nations children cannot access appropriate services, said Sony Perron, an assistant deputy minister of the department's First Nations and Inuit health branch.
He also expanded on the government's definition of the policy.
"Basically, it means children that have a need," he said.
Work on the application of Jordan's principle is not finished, Perron added, stressing the government needs to both respond immediately to cases and build capacity for prevention in communities.
"I'm pretty sure ... with more efforts we are going to identify more situations where children are not receiving the full breadth of services they would be receiving if they were living in urban areas or they were not First Nations children," he said.
NDP MP Charlie Angus speaks in the House of Commons. (Photo: CP)
"What I can tell you, though, is if any case is brought to our attention that is about a discriminatory practice where First Nation children do not have access to similar care or service or social services than non-First Nation children, we are taking measures on them."
In the meantime, First Nations children are falling through the cracks and the consequences are drastic, said northern Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus.
The tribunal is scheduled to hold "non-compliance" hearings in March to examine how the government is addressing the issue of indigenous child welfare, as well as Jordan's principle — hearings that wouldn't be necessary if the government simply complied with the tribunal's rulings, Angus said.
"Canadian people can see through this," he said.
"If Justin Trudeau really cared for the First Nation children who are being discriminated against, he wouldn't be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, cross-examining witnesses who represent families who have been denied service."