APTN National News
The Justin Trudeau Liberal government twice rejected mediation overtures from the Canadian Human Rights Commission before its last minute change of heart Monday to let the human rights body “facilitate” talks on its need to comply with an order to immediately overhaul and increase funding for First Nation child welfare, says a prominent children’s advocate.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said she received a couriered letter from the Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office early Monday afternoon after she returned to her own Ottawa office following a press conference. A short while later, Bennett told reporters on Parliament Hill that the commission had “agreed to facilitate discussions” on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s order that Ottawa overhaul and increase funding to on-reserve child welfare services.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before, it’s right out of the playbook or look over here, not at the children,” said Blackstock. “Whatever their communications regime is they can continue to spin that, but the courts have been clear, they are contravening the law.”
Bennett’s office did not respond to a request to explain why mediation had been previously rejected.
Blackstock, who filed the successful human rights complaint against Ottawa’s underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services, said the commission had on three occasions offered to deal with the tribunal’s order. Blackstock said Ottawa rejected the first two offers and did not respond to the last mediation offer issued in September until Monday.
Blackstock said she has agreed to the mediation every time.
However, Ottawa is still not agreeing to mediation. Blackstock said Bennett’s letter stated Ottawa would agree to have “facilitated discussions”, which is a legally different concept than mediation.
“We need to figure out what they agreed to and what is mediation,” said Blackstock. “All of us need to be focused on the well-being of children….We are much more interested in doing right than being right.”
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal hears cases referred by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The commission administers the Canadian Human Rights Act and the tribunal enforces it.
In January, the tribunal found Ottawa was discriminating against First Nations children by underfunding child welfare services on First Nations. The tribunal ordered Ottawa to immediately begin overhauling the system and increase funding for services. Since then, the tribunal has issued two compliance orders against Ottawa over the slow pace of its ordered change.
Ottawa submitted its compliance report to the tribunal Monday.
After the public release of a letter from Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, calling on the government to comply with the human rights tribunal order and a vote on the NDP motion calling for the same scheduled for Tuesday, Bennett announced Ottawa would be entering into talks overseen by the commission.
Bennett also announced on Twitter, after Sinclair’s letter surfaced, that the Liberal government would be voting for the NDP motion which also calls on Ottawa to immediately invest $155 million to make up the shortfall in funding for First Nation child welfare services.
Blackstock said she hopes the talks with the human rights commission will lead to some results.
“I want to see government officials there and political people who actually make decisions,” said Blackstock. “The folks we’ve been meeting at the bureaucratic level are not moving things at all.”
Blackstock said she will wait to see how these new rounds of talks unfold, but the legal option is on the table, including applying for a contempt order against Ottawa.
“The government is even willing to thwart the law to not comply with these orders,” said Blackstock.
Bennett has said Ottawa is working to overhaul the system and has launched a round of consultations, with a newly appointed ministerial representative, to gather information from the provinces and child advocates on how to best improve First Nation child welfare.
Blackstock said the department cannot change the system for the better. It should instead provide “equitable” and “flexible” funding to child welfare agencies in communities and allow them to improve the system from the “grassroots.”
Blackstock also said she has dampened attempts to draft her into the NDP leadership race. Blackstock said she has no intention or desire to enter partisan politics.