In 1907, Canada's Department of Indian Affairs dispatched Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce to investigate residential schools in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. Bryce found dilapidated buildings, rampant tuberculosis, and shocking death rates. In some schools, only 31 per cent of children survived to graduation.
Bryce submitted a lengthy report detailing the appalling conditions. The federal government buried his report for 15 years until Bryce became so frustrated that he published his findings in a book.
By the time the last school closed in 1996, at least 3,000 Aboriginal children had died in the residential school system.
Today Cindy Blackstock wonders how many of those children might have been saved if only the Canadian government had listened to Bryce a century ago.
Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, thinks about Bryce as she fights for a new generation of Aboriginal children in the child welfare system. Resources for aboriginal child welfare are underfunded and, as a result, the number of Canadian children in foster care includes a disproportionate number of Aboriginal children.
Eight years ago, Blackstock co-authored a report proposing solutions that, like Bryce's report, the government swept under the carpet. Since then, she and the Assembly of First Nations have been in a five-year battle with the federal government -- including multiple court challenges to get the issue heard by the Canadian Human Rights Commission -- so Aboriginal children receive the same level of services and resources as non-Aboriginal young people enjoy.
According to the new census data, more than 14,000 Aboriginal children are currently wards of the state -- representing almost half of all Canadian children in foster care. These Aboriginal children are taken from their families at a rate three times higher than at the peak of residential schools in 1949, and six to eight times the rate of non-Aboriginal children.
Children in foster care are more likely to have problems with substance abuse, criminal behaviour, and mental and physical health issues, and are less likely to succeed in school.
In 2005, Blackstock co-authored "Wen:de The Journey Continues" -- a report commissioned by the federal government to study why Aboriginal children were disproportionately represented in Canada's child welfare system, and what could be done about it. The report included proposals to improve Aboriginal child welfare services. Blackstock tells us five economists helped draft the plan, which would have cost less than one per cent of Canada's budget surplus -- then in the billions.
Echoing what happened to Bryce in 1907, the report landed on a shelf to gather dust.
In December 2006, Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations decided the only option was to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission arguing that the government's failure to provide the same level of child welfare funding for Aboriginal communities as non-Aboriginal communities receive constitutes discrimination against Aboriginal children. In September 2008, the Commission agreed there was sufficient merit to have the Human Rights Tribunal conduct a formal inquiry. The Tribunal has the power to force the government to take action.
The federal government has launched repeated legal challenges to prevent the Commission, and then the Tribunal, from hearing the complaint. Each time, the courts have ruled against the government. Most recently, on March 11, the Federal Court of Appeal rejected another attempt to stop Tribunal proceedings.
One week ago it was revealed the government has failed to disclose as many as 50,000 relevant documents it was required to turn over to the Tribunal. As we write this, the government is presenting a motion to further delay the hearings in order to gather these documents
In the meantime, the Auditor General of Canada, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child have all criticized the Canadian government for failing to take action on Aboriginal child welfare.
According to documents Blackstock received through Access to Information, the federal government has spent more than $3 million on legal manoeuvres to keep the Human Rights case from going forward. This includes getting a legal opinion on whether Aboriginal children in the welfare system will be able to sue Canada in years to come.
Why has so much time and money been spent on fighting a legal battle when it could have been used to find solutions?
Michelle Perron, a spokesperson with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, told us, "We believe that the best way to address the complex issues surrounding First Nations Child and Family Services is through collaboration with First Nations, provinces/territories and not through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal."
Blackstock countered that, in February, 2007, before the complaint was filed, Aboriginal groups approached the government, pleading for a chance to work in collaboration and avoid a Human Rights case. They were rebuffed.
The biggest question is: Have we learned nothing from the story of Dr. Bryce and the horrors he attempted to expose in residential schools? Here and now we have an opportunity to do the right thing for Aboriginal children so in 20 to 30 years Canada does not have to apologize again.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.