Current Problems

Child Welfare (1-5)

Ottawa is supposed to process First Nations families’ child services requests within days. Sometimes it makes them wait a year

January 4, 2024

First Nations families are waiting for as long as a year to have their applications for child and family services assessed by the federal government — even though Ottawa has been ordered to process them within 12 to 48 hours.

MAIN Cindy Blackstock
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, speaks in Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2016.Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press file photo

Toronto Star: First Nations families are waiting for as long as a year to have their applications for child and family services assessed by the federal government — even though Ottawa has been ordered to process them within 12 to 48 hours.

Advocates say the delays represent a “wilful and chronic failure” by the federal government to abide by an order of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in 2016 that it had discriminated against First Nations families by failing to deliver those services in a timely manner.

They add that the delays have also created a market for consultants, who charge fees to help families navigate the government bureaucracy — even though the services they are seeking are supposed to be free of charge.

“People are getting desperate because they have children in need and then that’s where we’re seeing these people who are private citizens who seem to be stepping forward and saying, ‘Pay me X and I can put in your request and I’ll advocate for you,’” said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

In a written statement, Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Simon Ross said the government is “committed to the full implementation of Jordan’s Principle and will continue working with First Nations partners to ensure that First Nations children can access the products, services and supports they need.”

Jordan’s Principle was adopted by the Canadian government in 2007 to ensures all First Nations children can access necessary and timely funding for products and services, including health, social, educational and LGBTQ2S+ and disability needs. This assistance can include speech therapy, medical supplies and equipment, social work and school tutoring.

It is named for Jordan River Anderson, of Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, who died in hospital at the age of five after the federal and provincial governments couldn’t agree on which one would pay for his at-home care.

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa’s delivery of services to First Nations children was discriminatory, and set out updated criteria for applying Jordan’s Principle. It said the government must process urgent applications — such as those for a child in palliative care, mental health crisis or a mother and children escaping domestic abuse — within 12 hours, and non-urgent requests within 48 hours.

Now, Blackstock said, some families are submitting their applications with a “hope and a prayer.” She said processing delays — particularly in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba — have applicants waiting as long as six to nine months or even a year, and some never hear back at all.

In December, the Caring Society filed a motion of non-compliance against the government with the tribunal, with recommendations to get Ottawa to comply with the established timelines.

That came just weeks after the Federal Court approved a $23-billion class action settlement to compensate families who were harmed because of the discriminatory funding of First Nations child and family services.

The Caring Society plans to submit affidavits for its motion to the human rights tribunal on Jan. 12. Blackstock said she hopes the motion will be heard in April or May.

Ross said the government is reviewing the notice of motion, but “at this time, it is too early to comment.”

Meanwhile, Blackstock says the government backlogs are creating a market for consultants, who charge fees to First Nations families to help them navigate the application process.

According to the federal government’s website, families are allowed to use an authorized representative — either an individual or business — who has their written consent to file and advocate for Jordan’s Principle on their behalf.

Julia Valencia has made helping families navigate the Jordan’s Principle application process her full-time job. After being introduced to Jordan’s Principle for her own family last year and experiencing the difficulties of the process firsthand, Valencia began offering advice to other families on social media.

She says her advocacy methods — such as including government officials and other organizations like the Caring Society in email correspondence — have got faster results for families than funded organizations that advocate on their behalf, based on feedback from her clients.

“I just took it upon myself to start helping other people in the community,” she said.

Valencia said she began filing applications for families free of charge in April and incorporated her business, Valencia Consulting, in May. In October, she began charging an administrative fee of $25, which she has now increased to $50 per application with an additional $25 per child. Her service includes advocating for families through the entire process, from filing out applications to following up with the government.

Recently, Valencia held an information session on Zoom for 10 people at $175 per person, which she advertised on social media.

Blackstock said the government-funded community co-ordinator organizations — which help families with their applications — have been affected by the federal government’s backlogs. “When Canada doesn’t comply, then it makes it very hard for them to be able to get these requests approved, but (the organizations) are there to do that advocacy work,” she said.

She also said she is concerned about private individuals outside the system charging to advocate for families and help with their applications, but Valencia said people “get what you pay for” when dealing with the free government-funded services.

“They’re not doing their job,” Valencia said of the government-funded organizations. “The complaints and the lack of response these families are getting from these navigators, or whatever they’re called, is just unbelievable.”

Valencia said she has helped about 20 families both within her community in Toronto and across the country thanks to her TikTok account “Julia and Jordan’s Principle,” which she began in December. “I don’t back down. So, if I’m going to be told no, like I can’t hear that when it’s coming from a place that a child is needing an item for. I don’t hear it,” she said.

Joy SpearChief-Morris is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics and Indigenous issues for the Star. Reach her via email: