On June 21, Canada celebrates National Aboriginal Day. In the words of Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc, who proclaimed this special day 21 years ago, "Aboriginal peoples of Canada have made and continue to make valuable contributions to Canadian society and it is considered appropriate that there be, in each year, a day to mark and celebrate these contributions and to recognize the different cultures of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada."
Unfortunately, this year's celebration lives in the shadow of a recent ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which focuses on Jordan's Principle. This Principle aims to ensure that First Nations children can access public services on the same terms as all other children without experiencing any service denials, delays or disruptions related to their First Nations status. The government first approached should pay for services that would ordinarily be available to other children in Canada. If there is a dispute between government departments over payment for services, it can be settled afterwards.
Examples of service denials have included situations where First Nations children with disabilities have not been able to access physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy services. There are also many instances where First Nations children, because of differential funding rules, have not been able to access necessary equipment that would have alleviated their suffering or risk of serious harm, such as a wireless system to improve a child's hearing, a hospital crib for a child with a neurological disorder, and a wheelchair suitable for a paraplegic child.
The equitable and fair treatment of aboriginal citizens and their children is everyone's business and not just that of government.
In its recent ruling, the Tribunal stated that "Canada has repeated its pattern of conduct and narrow focus with respect to Jordan's Principle." It found "the definition of Jordan's Principle adopted by Canada was a calculated, analyzed and informed policy choice based on financial impacts and potential risks rather than on the needs or the best interests of First Nations children, which Jordan's Principle is meant to protect and should be the goal of Canada's programming."
Universal principles for policy-making include giving priority to the best interests of the child, and fair, non-discriminatory treatment. Two of the guiding principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are the child's right to non-discrimination and the right to have a child's best interests treated as a primary consideration in all decision-making. These principles should never be subordinated to cost-cutting. Certainly, governments have to decide how to allocate limited resources, but to save relatively small amounts of money by treating First Nations children as second-class citizens is not acceptable.
The Government of Canada has now clarified its scope for Jordan's Principle. Key principles include its application to all First Nations children for all kinds of government services. Any jurisdictional issues will be resolved without delaying services. This is a welcome step. But it should not take ten years and four rulings to achieve social justice and fair treatment for First Nations children. The equitable and fair treatment of aboriginal citizens and their children is everyone's business and not just that of government. This would also be another key step in the journey towards genuine reconciliation.
Marv Bernstein is Chief Policy Advisor at UNICEF Canada.
Learn more about UNICEF Canada's work to make Canada the best place for all children to grow up in by 2030: www.unicef.ca/oneyouth
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