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Advocate questions how PM can plan apology for First Nations child welfare while government ‘wrongdoing’ persists 

July 8, 2024
Indigenous children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock, who is the executive director of the Caring Society, says the association cannot be part of the planning process for an apology caused by the First Nations child welfare system while Ottawa is breaking agreements to end discriminatory conduct.SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail: Ottawa – Indigenous children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock is questioning how the Prime Minister can apologize for harms caused by the First Nations child-welfare system while she says there is continuing wrongdoing that will be the subject of hearings at Canada’s human-rights tribunal.

In late June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in a letter to Assembly of First Nations National Chief Cindy Woodhouse Nepinak that the government is planning to issue an apology for “discriminatory conduct” related to First Nations child and family services and “past and ongoing harm it caused.”

Mr. Trudeau said in the letter that he has asked Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu and Justice Minister Arif Virani to lead engagements ahead of an apology. The Prime Minister said his expectation for that process is to afford an opportunity to hear the voices of all parties of a $23-billion final settlement agreement with affected First Nations children and families that was approved by the Federal Court of Canada in October.

Separately, an agreement-in-principle on long-term reform to the First Nations Child and Family Services Program was reached in January, 2022, with the AFN, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the Chiefs of Ontario (COO) and Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). The agreement is designed to provide better family supports and to reduce the number of First Nations children in care.

But Prof. Blackstock, the executive director of the Caring Society who also teaches at McGill University’s School of Social Work, said that while her organization wanted to work with the other parties on the agreement on reforms, terms could not be agreed upon. The Caring Society could not be part of a process when Canada was breaking agreements to end discriminatory conduct, she added.

In December, 2023, her organization filed a non-compliance motion to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) over the government’s approach to processing claims for Jordan’s Principle, a policy designed to ensure that First Nations children can access medical care and supports free from jurisdictional battles over who should pay for it.

She said that for an apology from the government to ring true, “harmful behaviour” must stop.

“It’s difficult to feel the meaning of an apology when the wrongdoing is still going on in real time,” Prof. Blackstock said in an interview.

Jordan’s Principle is named after Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old boy who had complex medical needs and died in hospital in 2005 after a lengthy battle between the federal and Manitoba governments over home-care costs.

Prof. Blackstock pointed to an affidavit filed in March to the CHRT about an urgent request made for in-home pediatric medical supports in Pikangikum First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. She said her organization got involved in the matter and pressed the federal government to act but that it “violated the response times” for urgent requests.

“During that time, two children died: a 12-year-old and a three-year-old,” she said. “We don’t know 100 per cent if they would have lived had those services been provided, just like with Jordan, but we do know that the community would have felt that they had done everything they could.”

In response to Prof. Blackstock’s concerns, Jennifer Kozelj, a press secretary for Ms. Hajdu, said in a statement that the government agrees there is still a lot of work to do in order to ensure First Nations children have access to the same services as all children across Canada – and called for the Caring Society to return to talks.

“We need to change the ways we are working so we can respond to requests as efficiently as possible,” Ms. Kozelj said. “The government cannot and should not be doing this work alone; we need all partners, including the Caring Society to be present at the table so we can fully reform our approach.”

The federal government, the AFN, the COO and NAN have participated in discussions on child-welfare reform, and an announcement is expected soon. Ms. Woodhouse Nepinak said in a Saturday interview that organizations have worked to get commitments on the table and it will be up to First Nations to decide the path forward. She also called for the Caring Society to return to the table.

Prof. Blackstock said the Caring Society has indicated it has a desire to be at the table but that the agreement-in-principle includes a clause that stops parties from going to the CHRT, which she says is a mechanism that holds the government accountable, including for “contributing to serious harm and some deaths of children.”

She said her organization welcomes the opportunity “to work with Canada and the other parties but must do so in a way that honours and protects children and is accountable to their families and Nations.”

Prof. Blackstock said Monday that hearings on Jordan’s Principle were scheduled to take place at the CHRT in August, but dates have been pushed back to Sept. 10-12. The change was made Friday at the request of the AFN’s lawyer, she said.

Ms. Woodhouse Nepinak said in a Facebook post on Monday that a special chiefs assembly will be held in Winnipeg from Sept. 17 to 19 on child welfare. She said the discussion will be focused on solutions for children and families.