OTTAWA — The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is expected to issue a ruling in the next month that could remove the government's discretion to deal with one the central issues flagged by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The quasi-judicial body is set to weigh in on whether the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by not funding child welfare services on reserve at the same level as services elsewhere.
The challenge to funding levels was first raised in 2007 by the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Six years after the initial complaint, 72 days of hearings were held.
The judgment could mark the first time in history where the government would be compelled to address the issue, says a spokesperson for one of the groups.
Aboriginal dancers and elders walk with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde as they enter the hall at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Tuesday Dec. 8, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
"It makes it a legally-binding decision," said Cindy Blackstock, president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
The TRC, which spent six years documenting Canada's painful residential school legacy, raised the need for changes to aboriginal child welfare in its sweeping 94 recommendations released in June.
It said governments, including at the federal level, need to reduce the number of aboriginal children who are apprehended by providing adequate resources for communities and child-welfare organizations.
It also called for the government to enact child welfare legislation that establishes national standards for aboriginal child apprehension and custody cases.
"I'm hoping with this new tone in government, they will see that as an opportunity to make sure they do the right thing."
The Liberal government has committed to implementing all of the suggestions from the TRC but advocates are waiting for action.
"I'm hoping with this new tone in government, they will see that as an opportunity to make sure they do the right thing and not just talk about it because talk doesn't change children's lives," said Blackstock.
"When it comes to child welfare, we know from the government's own documents that they're underfunding between 22 per cent and 38 and a half per cent, less than what other children get across the country."
The underfunding has resulted in record numbers of children in child welfare care, she added, suggesting children cannot afford to wait any longer.
"There are) three times the number of First Nations children in child welfare care today than at the height of residential schools," Blackstock said. "So, what I want to see is that remedied because what we need to do is we need to have services to support families at the earliest stages before things reach a crisis point."
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett did not provide comment on the upcoming ruling on Tuesday.
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