By Haley Maziarski (Indigenous Affairs Student Initiative)
IASI is a newly-established graduate student-led initiative that aims to provide a platform to discuss Indigenous issues from a policy-focused lens. In conjunction with our Advisory Board, consisting of Bob Rae, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and Professor Douglas Sanderson, we seek to promote awareness of Indigenous issues and encourage the enrolment of Indigenous students at the Munk School.
The current federal minority government formed by Justin Trudeau and his Liberal cabinet is not shy when it comes to promising much-needed change for Indigenous Canadians. On the campaign trail in 2015, Trudeau committed to the renewal of a “nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and Indigenous Peoples—one built on respect, rights and a commitment to end the status quo…to create fairness and equality of opportunity in Canada”. He actively courted indigenous voters—and it worked. A recent poll commissioned by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network found that 40 percent of indigenous voters polled voted Liberal in 2015. The Liberals’ next closest competitors were the New Democratic Party at 16 percent and the Conservatives at 15 percent.
Since the 2015 federal election, and through that in 2019, the Liberals continue to indicate their support for progressive action in the interest of Indigenous Canadians, promising to eventually implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the ability for Indigenous communities to veto projects related to natural resource development. [DE1] However, the government has been actively writing a much bleaker narrative for Indigenous Canadians behind the scenes. More specifically, this narrative perhaps most significantly challenges the September 2019 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling that Indigenous children should be compensated for the harm created by Canada’s unequal funding of essential services and the on-reserve child welfare system.
The Tribunal’s ruling came after the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (The Caring Society) filed a complaint in 2007 that claimed unequal funding and subsequent unfair opportunity for Indigenous children as compared to non-Indigenous children. The ruling ordered the federal government to pay $40,000 to each child—the maximum allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act—who was apprehended or taken from their homes on reserve, no matter what the reason. The ruling covers all children in the care of the on-reserve child welfare system at any point from Jan.1, 2006 onwards.
The federal government has continuously ignored the blatant unequal treatment of Indigenous youth in comparison to non-Indigenous youth, and the federal government’s federal order to set aside the tribunal’s decision is one such glaring example amongst a myriad of poor decisions. It was found in 2018 that three Indigenous agencies covering social services in northern Ontario were underfunded by approximately $400 million over a five-year period. Such chronic underfunding has had a body count: 102 Indigenous children have died between 2013 and 2017 in Ontario alone, 48 of whom died in the two years since the Tribunal first ordered the government to immediately stop discriminating against Indigenous kids and fund them at the same rate as those who are non-Indigenous. These circumstances make it so that many Indigenous parents must choose between caring for their own kids—despite the lack of resources available to them—and giving them to social services, where they are theoretically supposed to receive the same amount of funding as non-Indigenous children but are instead unnecessarily separated from their families and enter a dangerous, ineffective foster care system. Indeed, sixty percent of homeless youths and one-third of homeless adults have been involved with Canada’s child welfare system.
Renowned child welfare activist Cindy Blackstock, who is of B.C.’s Gitxsan First Nation and the executive director of The Caring Society, has been continuously and forcefully addressing the federal government’s track record on its treatment of Indigenous youth for years. She called the Tribunal’s decision to deny the government’s order to dismiss the ruling a “turning point for reconciliation” and argues that “Canada either fully complies with the Tribunal’s rulings (and) ends discrimination in other public services or it continues to fight First Nations children”. However, she is “not convinced” the federal government is providing an adequate amount of prevention services, such as meeting the needs of Indigenous children in their communities. Blackstock said the provision of funding should co-exist with conversations about jurisdiction and self-determination, as it is impossible to successfully implement one without the other.
So why does the Canadian federal government continue to ignore the social injustices facing Indigenous youth to this day? According to statistics, the problem may be sourced from non-Indigenous Canadians themselves. A 2018 poll found that a staggering 53 percent of Canadians think that Canada spends too much time apologizing for the government’s infamously harmful residential schools system. Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak went on record defending the schools, saying that she spoke “in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women … whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged.” The indifference that these Canadians appear to have for Indigenous peoples seems to be based less on facts and more on the desire to move through their lives unbothered by colonial guilt. It is obvious, however, that Indigenous peoples—notably their youth—are still dealing with the attitudes and policies we’re supposed to be “moving on from”, and that a tragic body count continues to rise because of it. We—as non-Indigenous Canadians—must decide whether we care enough to stop these unnecessary fatalities and social injustices. Then, maybe—just maybe—the government will care, too.
Haley Maziarski comes from Sudbury, Ontario and is currently in her first year of the Master of Public Policy program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She previously graduated from Laurentian University with an honours Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies. Before joining Munk, Haley worked as a Research Assistant at Laurentian, analyzing data for two professors on studies relating to advancements in education. Her policy interests include the environment, Indigenous affairs, and health.