• Ottawa must act now on aboriginal child welfare
May 30, 2013

By Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger, Vancouver Sun

Bryce found dilapidated buildings, rampant tuberculosis, and shocking death rates. In some schools, only 31 per cent of children survived to graduation. Bryce submitted a lengthy report detailing the appalling conditions.

The federal government buried his report for 15 years until Bryce became so frustrated that he published his findings in a book.

By the time the last school closed in 1996, at least 3,000 aboriginal children had died in the system.

Today, Cindy Blackstock wonders how many of those children might have been saved if the Canadian government had listened to Bryce a century ago.

Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, thinks about Bryce as she fights for a new generation of aboriginal children in the child welfare system. Aboriginal child welfare programs are underfunded and, as a result, a disproportionate number of aboriginal children are in foster care.

Eight years ago, Blackstock co-wrote a report proposing solutions. Like Bryce's report, it was swept under the carpet.

Since then, she and the Assembly of First Nations have engaged in a five-year battle with the federal government - including multiple court challenges to get the issue heard by the Canadian Human Rights Commission - so aboriginal children receive the same level of services and resources as non-aboriginal young people enjoy.

According to the new census data, more than 14,000 aboriginal children are wards of the state - almost half of all Canadian children in foster care. These aboriginal children are taken from their families at a rate three times higher than at the peak of residential schools in 1949, and six to eight times the rate of non-aboriginal children.

Children in foster care are more likely to have problems with substance abuse, criminal behaviour, and mental and physical health issues, and are less likely to succeed in school.

The 2005 report co-written by Blackstock included proposals to improve aboriginal child welfare services. Blackstock tells us five economists helped draft the plan, which would have cost less than one per cent of Canada's budget surplus - then in the billions.

In 2006, Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations decided the only option was to complain to the Canadian Human Rights Commission arguing the government's failure to provide the same level of child welfare funding for aboriginal communities as non-aboriginal communities is discrimination. In 2008, the commission agreed there was sufficient merit to have the Human Rights Tribunal conduct a formal inquiry. The tribunal has the power to force the government to take action.

The federal government has launched repeated legal challenges to prevent a hearing. Each time, the courts have ruled against the government. Most recently, on March 11, the Federal Court of Appeal rejected another attempt to stop tribunal proceedings.

A week ago, it was revealed the government has failed to disclose as many as 50,000 relevant documents it was required to turn over to the tribunal. As we write this, the government is presenting a motion to further delay the hearings to gather these documents.

In the meantime, the Auditor General of Canada, the House of Commons standing committee on public accounts and the United Nations committee on the rights of the child have all criticized the Canadian government for failing to take action on aboriginal child welfare.

According to documents Blackstock received through Access to Information, the federal government has spent more than $3 million on legal manoeuvres to block the case.

Why has so much time and money been spent on fighting a legal battle when it could have been used to find solutions?

Michelle Perron, an official with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, told us: "We believe that the best way to address the complex issues surrounding First Nations child and family services is through collaboration with First Nations, provinces/territories and not through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal."

Blackstock countered that, in 2007, before the complaint was filed, aboriginal groups approached the government, pleading for a chance to work in collaboration. They were rebuffed.

The biggest question is: Have we learned nothing from the story of Dr. Bryce and the horrors he attempted to expose in residential schools? We have an opportunity to do the right thing so in 20 to 30 years Canada does not have to apologize again.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 North American cities this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.