05/26/2017 14:02 EDT | Updated 05/26/2017 19:21 EDT

Jordan's Principle could have prevented Ontario suicides, rights tribunal says

OTTAWA — The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal says the federal government's failure to fully implement Jordan's Principle may have contributed to the suicides of two teenagers in Wapekeka First Nation earlier this year.

The principle lays out how to proceed when a jurisdictional dispute arises over paying for services to First Nations children, saying the first government to be contacted should pay, with arguments over jurisdiction to be sorted out later.

It's named after a five-year-old Manitoba boy who died in hospital in 2005 while waiting for Ottawa and the Manitoba government to decide who would pay for the specialized care he needed so he could live in a foster home.

In a 52-page decision released Friday, the tribunal chastised Ottawa for failing to implement a January 2016 order to fully follow Jordan's Principle, and urged it to do so immediately. 

That failure meant there was no chance to prevent the Wapekeka tragedy, and that Canada only offered help for the reserve after the deaths occurred.

 Jordan's Principle should apply to all First Nations children regardless of whether they live on or off reserve, and should ensure there are no gaps in service to those children, the decision says.

If a service isn't normally available the request should still be reviewed to determine if it would be culturally appropriate or in the best interests of the child.

The tribunal gave Ottawa until Nov. 1 to review all previous requests for funding for First Nations kids which were denied going back as far as April 1, 2009 to ensure they comply with those principles.

The tribunal said it believes Canada wants to implement the principle, but that jurisdictional red tape remains a barrier to providing service.

In July 2016, Wapekeka First Nation submitted a proposal to the federal government asking for funding for an in-community mental health team to help address a suicide pact uncovered among teenagers on the Ontario reserve.

Canada did nothing for months, the tribunal's decision notes. The government finally stepped in to help in January 2017, but only after two 12-year-old girls had taken their own lives.

"While Canada provided assistance once the Wapekeka suicides occurred, the flaws in the Jordan’s Principle process left any chance of preventing the Wapekeka tragedy unaddressed and the tragic events only triggered a reactive response to then provide services," the tribunal said in its ruling.

A joint statement Friday from Health Minister Jane Philpott and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government is reviewing the decision to look at where the tribunal says it is not in full compliance.

The government pointed to its Jordan's Principle Child-First Initiative funding of $382.5 million over three years, and said as of March 31, 2017, 4,900 requests for health, social and educational products or services were approved under the initiative.

"The well being of First Nations children and families is a priority for the Government of Canada," the statement said.

Cindy Blackstock, a longtime champion of Jordan's Principle and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said it's long past time Justin Trudeau took the case seriously.

"I'm calling on the prime minister personally to intervene in this case," Blackstock said in an interview.

"It should be abundantly clear by now that the Department of Indigenous Affairs and the Department of Health are not able or not willing to comply with these legal orders and need further leadership and direction directly from the prime minister."

Canada can appeal Friday's ruling within 30 days; Blackstock said must still comply in the meantime, unless it seeks a Federal Court stay.

There are specific timelines in the order and if Canada doesn't follow them, the society will seek an application for contempt, she added.

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