APTN National News
OTTAWA – The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal heard emotional opening statements Monday at the start of hearings into whether the Canadian government discriminates against First Nations children through the underfunding of child welfare services.
The long-running battle against Ottawa over funding for on-reserve child and family welfare services has been led by Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Blackstock’s organization alleges that the Canadian government discriminates against First Nations children on the basis of their ethnic origins through its underfunding of child and family services in First Nations communities.
The federal government denies it discriminates against First Nations children.
Ottawa has tried unsuccessfully to stop the tribunal in its tracks.
It previously managed to convince the tribunal to dismiss the child welfare complaint, but a Federal Court overturned that decision.
Ottawa appealed the ruling and a Federal Court of Appeal hearing on the case is scheduled for March 6.
“We don’t discriminate,” said Jonathan Tarlton, a lawyer with the federal Department of Justice. “We neither deny nor differentiate on the provision of the service.”
But in her opening statement before the tribunal’s three-person panel, Blackstock, who is also the first witness of the hearing, said the federal government had gone to great lengths to stop the complaint, including spying on her online activities through Aboriginal Affairs officials posing as Facebook “friends” and by accessing her status card information on file with the department.
“Children are the keepers of the possible…they are the ones who often call us up to be better people than we thought we could be and a better country than we think we are,” said Blackstock. “This case, this moment is for the children. Over the next coming weeks there will be lots of legal arguments, but the thing that is most important is you decide this case for the children.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo also delivered opening remarks and compared the impacts of the current child welfare for on-reserve First Nations to the Indian Residential School system which saw children taken away from their homes and up to 3,000 of them died before they could return home.
“The patterns that we saw in the residential schools are being perpetuated again,” said Atleo. “Perhaps previously it was an explicit policy to ‘kill the Indian in the child’…I think we have actions that definitely feel like it is in line with the principle of killing the Indian in the child. But the words have been words to seek reconciliation…now we want to see those words acted on and those words are words of reconciliation that our children should be treated fairly.”
Atleo said there is a 22 per cent funding gap between on-reserve child and family services, which is federal responsibility, and those services run by the provinces.
The case is scheduled for 14 weeks of hearings.
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