APTN National News
The Justin Trudeau Liberal government is taking the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to Federal Court over a ruling last month that linked the suicide deaths in a northern Ontario First Nation with Ottawa’s inaction on implementing total equity in health care delivery for Indigenous children.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Health Minister Jane Philpott issued a joint statement Friday saying the tribunal’s May 26 ruling contained two issues that they, as medical doctors, could not allow to stand and needed clarification from the Federal Court.
“Our views on this are informed by our past experiences,” said Philpott, in an interview Friday morning.
The ministers took issue with the tribunal’s order that all Jordan’s Principle cases be processed within 48 hours and that the federal departments do away with case conferencing, which it saw as an unnecessary and additional administrative layer.
Under Jordan’s Principle, the health care needs of First Nations children are placed ahead of jurisdictional disputes between the federal and provincial governments. It also applies to other public services, including education, early childhood learning and child welfare.
The Human Rights Tribunal ruled last year that Ottawa discriminated against First Nation children by underfunding child welfare services on reserve and by failing to provide health care services on par with the rest of the country.
The Trudeau Liberals have spent at least $707,000 fighting the tribunal’s order, according to numbers obtained by NDP MP Charlie Angus through an Order Paper question.
The previous administration of Stephen Harper went to Federal Court in a failed bid to have the discrimination case, which was filed in 2007, dismissed.
Since the 2016 ruling, the tribunal has issued three compliance orders against the Trudeau Liberals over the slow pace of its required changes.
Philpott said that while the tribunal’s orders were generally sound, the potential exceptions created too much of a health care risk and forced her government to take the issue to Federal Court.
“This is our mechanism to get back to the tribunal to make sure we understand what they are saying,” said Philpott. “We don’t want anything that we agree to, to not be in the best interest of kids.”
Philpott said there are some complex cases where 48 hours is just not enough time to get the health care treatment right.
“Both of us have been in circumstances where we know that when kids need care there are advantages where that care comes not from an individual, but from team based care.”
Cindy Blackstock, head of the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society, said Philpott and Bennett resorted to a “technical argument” aimed at undermining the tribunal’s orders and ruling.
“This is a distraction. The federal government has entered zero evidence from the ministers or any other physician suggesting these timelines are problematic,” said Blackstock, who filed the 2007 human rights complaint with the support of the Assembly of First Nations. “They have violated four legal orders to stop the discrimination against vulnerable children and are now launching another technical argument to shirk their responsibilities.”
Blackstock said the only physician to file an affidavit was from Dr. Michael Kirlew, who works out of Sioux Lookout, Ont.
Kirlew, who provides health care to northern First Nations, linked Ottawa’s failure to fully comply with the tribunal’s order with two suicide deaths of 12-year-old girls in Wapekeka First Nation this past January. Another 12-year-old girl died by suicide last week in the community.
“Canada did not challenge Dr. Kirlew’s evidence,” said Blackstock.
NDP MP Romeo Saganash said he was “disgusted” by the move to take the issue to Federal Court.
“It was unacceptable for Justin Trudeau to ignore the rulings of the Human Rights Tribunal regarding discrimination of First Nations children but I am disgusted to learn that now, Trudeau is taking Tribunal itself to court,” said Saganash. “How desperate can he be to disregard basic human rights of Indigenous People?”
Health Canada received an urgent request for help from Wapekeka last summer after community members uncovered a suicide pact. Health Canada officials initially balked at the request.
The tribunal, in its May 26 ruling, also made the connection.
“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,” said the tribunal’s ruling at the time.
Philpott said the tribunal made a “factual error in the decision” because it said there was a “refusal to provide funding” to the community.
“That funding was never refused,” said Philpott.
Philpott said linking the two issues was also an oversimplification.
“The roots and causes of these terrible suicides in First Nations will not be solved simply by money and additional health workers. They have to do with deep social injustices, intergenerational trauma, so much inequity,” said Philpott. “Let us not oversimplify this.”
Philpott said federal officials have identified 8,800 Jordan’s Principle cases to date.