Fis­cal pol­icy driven by dis­crim­i­na­tion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Tim Harper Tim Harper is a na­tional affairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices. tharper@thes­tar.ca Twit­ter:@nut­graf1

It was a huge vic­tory for abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren in this coun­try and a day when his­tor­i­cal wrongs could be­gin to be made right.

So why were there so many ques­tions cloud­ing a day be­ing her­alded by the coun­try’s First Na­tions?

Why had it taken a nine-year fight and a Cana­dian Hu­man Rights Tri­bunal de­ci­sion to de­ter­mine what seemed plain, that suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments had been guilty of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in its fund­ing of First Na­tions child wel­fare ser­vices in this coun­try? In­stead, we had gov­ern­ments that ig­nored re­ports and rec­om­men­da­tions by the au­di­tor gen­eral, fought over nick­els in­stead of equity and had to be hauled into court to do right.

And what does it say about this coun­try that, in 2016, the word “dis­crim­i­na­tion” is now en­shrined by a quasi-le­gal tri­bunal when it comes to the treat­ment of suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren by our gov­ern­ments?

The tri­bunal, in its rul­ing re­leased Tues­day, agreed sup­port from the fed­eral govern­ment for child wel­fare on re­serves is much lower than the sup­port pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments give to chil­dren off re­serves. The gap is es­ti­mated be­tween 20 and 30 per cent, even though needs on re­serves are more acute.

It was sim­ply, says Cindy Black­stock of the First Na­tions Child and Fam­ily Car­ing So­ci­ety, dis­crim­i­na­tion as fis­cal pol­icy.

“This is our Mis­sis­sippi,” she said.

It is Black­stock who em­bar­rassed the pre­vi­ous Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment by mak­ing this is­sue a hu­man rights test case and the govern­ment op­posed her with fe­roc­ity. Rather than rem­edy the in­equity, it spent more than $5 mil­lion fight­ing Black­stock. She charged bu­reau­crats were tail­ing her in cy­berspace, spy­ing on her and try­ing to in­tim­i­date her.

So she took those al­le­ga­tions — much of it re­vealed be­cause she won ac­cess to her own files un­der in­for­ma­tion laws — to the hu­man rights tri­bunal, and al­though some of the al­le­ga­tions were dis­missed, she was awarded $20,000 in dam­ages for her treat­ment, largely be­cause she was de­nied ac­cess to a meet­ing by a vin­dic­tive fed­eral bu­reau­crat.

That is be­hind her now. Tues­day’s rul­ing, she said, was all about the chil­dren.

“It is only be­cause of their race and/or na­tional or eth­nic ori­gin that they suf­fer the ad­verse im­pacts ... in the pro­vi­sion of child and fam­ily ser­vices,” the Tri­bunal ruled. “Fur­ther­more, th­ese ad­verse im­pacts per­pet­u­ate the his­tor­i­cal dis­ad­van­tage and trauma suf­fered by abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar as a re­sult of the res­i­den­tial schools sys­tem.”

The line from un­der­fund­ing led di­rectly to abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren in foster care. First Na­tions chil­dren spent more than 66 mil­lion nights away from their fam­i­lies since 1989, the equiv­a­lent of 187,000 years of lost child­hood away from par­ents, Black­stock said.

To­day, First Na­tions are three times more likely to be in care than dur­ing the height of the res­i­den­tial schools.

“In this great coun­try, there is no room for racism or dis­crim­i­na­tion,” said Perry Bel­le­garde, the na­tional chief of the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions.

But now equal­ity meets bud­getary re­straints.

For a govern­ment that has vowed to re­set and re­store re­la­tions with First Na­tions, a bill of mil­lions of dol­lars was just added to that pledge be­cause the rul­ing by the tri­bunal is bind­ing. There is also a pro­vi­sion for up to $20,000 in com­pen­sa­tion for those hurt by the fund­ing dis­par­ity dat­ing back to 2006. Black­stock’s or­ga­ni­za­tion is call­ing for an injection of $109 mil­lion per year, plus in­fla­tion, to level the play­ing field, dat­ing back to 2012.

The im­pact of the rul­ing is wide-reach­ing.

The Mis­sis­saugas of the Port Credit First Na­tions, for ex­am­ple, are in a sep­a­rate le­gal bat­tle with the fed­eral govern­ment over the case of twins with spe­cial needs who had to be bused off re­serve to a school in nearby Cayuga be­cause the First Na­tions school could not han­dle their needs. The fed­eral govern­ment also re­fused to pay the spe­cial education costs for the boys, Sloan and Marvin, a cost that could not be ab­sorbed by the First Na­tions’ spe­cial education bud­get. They were up­rooted, taken from their school and friends be­cause of a fund­ing short­fall.

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