Murray Sinclair on FN child welfare: ‘Immediate action is required’

Former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has urged MPs to support NDP motion on First Nations child welfare

Senator Murray Sinclair in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa May 31, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Senator Murray Sinclair in his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa May 31, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

OTTAWA — The former chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is urging all MPs to support an NDP motion on First Nations child welfare — a move that applies political pressure on the Liberals ahead of a Tuesday vote in the House of Commons.

In strongly worded written comments obtained by The Canadian Press, Murray Sinclair said he cannot overstate the importance of the federal government immediately complying with legal orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

“Canada’s discriminatory policies have led to greater failed and failing interventions into the lives of indigenous families than the residential schools and serious changes must be undertaken,” Sinclair said.

The failures of provincial child welfare systems combined with the failure of the federal government to recognize its fiduciary responsibilities were at the forefront of the commission’s calls to action that were released following the study of Canada’s residential school legacy, Sinclair added.

“Immediate action is required,” he said. “I encourage members of the House to support the motion proposed by member of Parliament Charlie Angus.”

The senator’s comments come ahead of a Tuesday vote on the motion that calls for an immediate $155-million investment and a funding plan for future years.

It also urges the government to adopt Jordan’s Principle, which says no aboriginal child should suffer denial, delay or disruption of health services available to other children because of jurisdictional feuds.

It is named after Jordan River Anderson, five-year-old boy with complex needs who died in hospital in 2005 after a two-year battle between the federal and Manitoba governments over his home care costs.

Sinclair’s remarks should force the government to take a step back and say ‘This is bigger than a tit for tat fight with the NDP,’“ Angus said in an interview.

“This is about our historic obligations to repair the damage that has been done to generations of First Nations families and children.”

The tribunal decision, issued in January, found the federal government discriminates against First Nations children in the way it delivers child welfare services on reserves.

It has since issued two legal orders urging action from the Liberals.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal only issues these orders due to a lack of compliance, said Cindy Blackstock _ a First Nations child advocate who spent nine years fighting the government along with the Assembly of First Nations prior to the landmark ruling.

“If the government was in full compliance with the orders, there would been no need at all for the tribunal to point to increasing measures that they have to comply with and demanding that the federal government report back that they have indeed met those measures.”

Last week prior to debate in the Commons on the motion, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced that a new special representative will lead national discussions on the reform of First Nations child welfare services.

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux _ a Lakehead University professor and a Liberal candidate in the 2011 election _ is set to advise the government as it works with provinces, territories and child welfare agencies on an overhaul of the system.

Officials at the Indigenous Affairs Department insist government funding is being phased in over time deliberately because it has heard from agencies about the challenges of hiring and retaining staff, as well as the need for time to roll out new programming.

They also say the government is implementing the tribunal’s findings.

Blackstock said she has yet to find one report that recommends an advisor despite more than 20 years experience on the file.

“What is necessary is that Canada invests in equity at the level of other children, providing prevention services that meets the needs of these kids and acts on the recommendations on the books,” Blackstock said. “The disciminator in this case, the federal government, is calling the shots and wants everyone to get in line behind them.”

Sinclair’s comments highlight the immediate need to address the underfunding in First Nations child welfare, she added.

“Reconciliation means not saying sorry twice,” Blackstock said. “That’s what Justice Sinclair is reminding of us of. When I went to the TRC hearings, I heard survivor after survivor after survivor saying ‘I’m telling this story so it doesn’t happen to my grandkids.’ And it is happening to their grandkids.”

Last Wednesday, the Manitoba legislature passed a motion condemning the federal government for its response to the tribunal’s ruling.

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