Comprehensive Reform Needed to Achieve Substantive Equality for First Nations Children
On January 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (“CHRT”) released a historic decision finding that Canada is racially discriminating against 163,000 First Nations children by providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services ("FNCFS Program") and failing to implement Jordan's Principle to ensure equitable access to government services available to all other Canadian children.1 While the CHRT requires further clarifications from the parties before making any specific remedial orders, the decision provides that a reform of Canada's FNCFS Program is needed in order to ensure that the services provided to First Nations children are in their best interest and meet their cultural, historical and geographical needs.2
The ink on the CHRT's decision was not yet dry when further allegations of discriminatory conduct by Canada against First Nations children came to light. This time they related to discrimination in the context of health services. On February 21, 2016, CBC News reported that Health Canada has denied several requests for coverage of braces to correct a handicapping malocclusion of Josey Willier, a First Nations teenager from Alberta who is experiencing several headaches and chronic pain as a result of her condition.3 Such essential medical services ought to be covered by the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program (“NIHB”), a program administered by Heath Canada aimed at helping First Nations people and Inuit reach an overall health status that is comparable with other Canadians.4 Though Josey's braces were deemed to be medically necessary by her doctor, and her requests were accompanied by all necessary medical evidence, Health Canada has denied her multiple requests for coverage. A judicial review application was commenced on March 24, 2016, challenging NIHB's decision to deny the child coverage.
As it turns out, Josey's story is just the tip of the iceberg. Shortly after Josey's mother spoke out publicly about her daughter's situation, shocking statistics relating to the NIHB's rejection rate were released. Of the over 534 requests for essential medical services coverage by on behalf of First Nations children to Health Canada, 80 percent were rejected in the first round. The few that went to the second round had a 99 percent rejection rate. On the third round, 100 percent of requests were denied by Health Canada bureaucrats.5
While the CHRT's decision calls for reform to address its numerous findings of discrimination, the scope of its application is limited to child welfare and, as such, does not strictly apply to Josey's case which relates to health services. This is because complaints filed under the Canadian Human Rights Act must relate to only one specific service area. Of course, as any social worker will tell you, child welfare cannot be seen in a silo and requires a holistic approach also involving adequate housing, education and health for children. While the CHRT decision does not specifically require reform in these service areas such as health, the expensive definition of discrimination adopted by the CHRT in its decision relating to child welfare services – one that requires Canada to offer First Nations children services comparable to other children, that are in their best interest and that consider their historical, cultural and geographic needs – may be indicative of how the CHRT will rule when adjudicating further allegations of discrimination against First Nations children relating to services areas linked to child welfare. Given that Minister Wilson-Raybould has recently stated that any form of discrimination is disgraceful and that change is needed in order to honor the respect of reconciliation, it is hoped that Canada will implement the CHRT's calls for reform holistically and across all services its provides to First Nations children rather than spending years and millions of Canadian tax dollars in legal fees fighting a long chain of human rights complaint relating health, housing and education.6
Anne Levesque and Sarah Clarke7
1. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 CHRT 2, CHRR Doc. 16-3003.
2. Ibid at para 463–65 (emphasis in original decision).
3. Go to http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/politics/mother-fights-for-daughter-medical-1.3456562 for the CBC article.
4. For more information relating to the Non-Insured Health Benefit Program go to:
5. 42nd Parliament, 1st Session, Edited Hansard, Number 020, February 18, 2016 available online at:
6. In 2014, the Canadian Human Rights Commission reported that it had referred 26 complaints lodged by First Nations Peoples against Canada. See “Special Report to Parliament on the Impacts of Bill C-12” Canadian Human Rights Commission (September 15 2014) Available online at:
7. Anne Levesque and Sarah Clarke both represented the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada in its historic complaint against the government of Canada regarding its discriminatory child welfare services and its failure to implement Jordan's Principle. Sarah Clarke is representing Josey Willier's mother in her efforts to obtain the essential medical services for her daughter.
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