Reporting Order Insufficient to Stop Canada from Discriminating against First Nations Children
On January 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (“CHRT”) released a historic decision ("decision") finding that Canada is racially discriminating against over 163,000 First Nations children and their families by providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services ("FNCFS Program") and by failing to implement Jordan's Principle to ensure equitable access to government services available to other children. In a subsequent order issued on April 26, 2016, the CHRT commented on Canada's failure to take sufficient immediate action to comply with its January decision. It wrote: “[i]t is unclear why and how some of the findings [of discrimination] have not been addressed within the three months since the [January] decision. Instead of being immediate relief, some of these items may now become mid-term relief”.
In response to this inaction, the CHRT ordered Canada to confirm that it had fully implemented Jordan's Principle and to report on the steps it had taken to comply with its January decision. Such reporting orders are exceptional and are generally issued only in cases where the failure to promptly comply with an order may cause irreparable harm, particularly to a vulnerable group, as was the case in Doucet-Boudreau. Similarly, in Caring Society (No. 15), the CHRT heard and accepted evidence that Canada's discriminatory FNCFS Program was causing First Nations children to be removed from their families and communities and put into care at alarming rates. It ordered Canada to immediately cease its discriminating conduct towards against First Nations children in accordance with its ruling.
It is disappointing that in the face of these tragic circumstances and such an exceptional legal measure, Canada failed to take the immediate action necessary to lessen the discrimination experienced by First Nations children receiving child welfare services following the CHRT's April reporting order. By way of example, the 2016 Budget allocates $71.1 million to First Nations child welfare services in 2016–2017, only $60.38 million of which will be directed to service delivery for children and families. By contrast, Canada's own internal documents estimated that a minimum of $108.1 million plus an annual 3 percent increase for inflation was required (in 2012 dollars) to provide First Nations children with child welfare services comparable to those available off reserve. The largest funding allocation in the 2016 Budget for child welfare services for First Nations children will not be conferred until 2020–2021 and that depends on whether the current government gets re-elected. When asked why First Nations children needed to wait five years — or a quarter of their childhood — to receive services comparable to those available to others, Prime Minister Trudeau stated that the government needed to “create the capacity” before providing additional funds to FNCFS agencies. Yet, none of the evidence presented before the Tribunal supports the Prime Minister's claim that First Nations agencies do not have the capacity to deliver equal services to First Nations children. From a human rights perspective, the claim, which is akin to stating that discrimination against certain groups is acceptable because they are not, in the eyes of the party responsible for the discrimination or the public, ready for equality, is also very problematic.
Canada's inaction with respect to the implementation of Jordan's Principle is equally disconcerting. In its May 10, 2016, compliance report to the CHRT, Canada claimed that it had fully implemented Jordan's Principle. Yet, Canada has failed to take the measures necessary to ensure that First Nations children not longer experience discrimination as a result of jurisdictional disputes. For example, the INAC website directs the public to contact a series of telephone numbers for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (“INAC”) regarding Jordan's Principle cases. The Caring Society called each number to test the accessibility of INAC's Jordan's Principle reporting system. Results revealed out of service telephone numbers, automated answering machines that did not include a Jordan's Principle option and government officials who were not aware of Jordan's Principle or referred the caller to a First Nations organization. Only one INAC office was able to send contact information for officials several hours after the original call. The results of the calls were immediately brought to INAC's attention and the Caring Society sought confirmation from INAC that the matter has been addressed but no response has been received. This raises significant concerns regarding Canada's compliance with the CHRT January order. More importantly, it suggests that First Nations children will continue to experience discrimination when seeking access to government services, or simply be denied those services altogether. This is not surprising given that the CHRT found that jurisdictional disputes caused First Nations children to be denied services available to other children due to poor or complete lack of coordination between and within governments. Such ongoing systemic and widespread discrimination cannot be remedied simply by making grandiose statements.
On June 14, 2016, faced with this continued inaction, and upon receipt of Canada's compliance report regarding the CHRT's findings of discrimination relating to its FNCFS Program, the CHRT cancelled an upcoming case conference it had scheduled with the parties to discuss the implementation of the January decision. In particular, it wrote:
The Panel finds there are far more unresolved issues to deal with th[a]n it had expected and is now questioning the benefit of having a meeting at this time. Therefore, the Panel proposes to use its limited resources to address as many of the outstanding issues as it can now.
The CHRT is expected to rule upon the Caring Society's requests for immediate relief later this year. It is unfortunate that such requests are even necessary and that Canada remains unwilling to comply voluntarily with the CHRT's decision by ceasing its discriminatory conduct towards some of the most vulnerable members of our society, First Nations children.
Anne Levesque, B.A., LL.B., MSt (Oxon)
is proud to have been one of the lawyers who represented the
First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada in this case.
1. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada v. Canada (Attorney General) (No. 15), 2016 CHRT 2, CHRR Doc. 16-3003 (“Caring Society (No. 15)”). When there is a dispute as to which level of government must fund a particular service, Jordan's Principle states that the service must be immediately provided by the government that is contacted first, and that jurisdictional issues must be sorted out later. For more information on Jordan's Principle, visit https://fncaringsociety.com/jordans-principle.
2. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada v. Canada (Attorney General) (No. 16), 2016 CHRT 10, CHRR Doc. 16-3033, para. 21.
3. In Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education),  3 S.C.R. 3 (“Doucet-Boudreau”), the Supreme Court of Canada upheld an order of a trial judge from Nova Scotia in a language rights case to retain jurisdiction to hear reports on the status of the effort of the province to provide adequate school facilities and programs for Francophones. In so doing, the Supreme Court noted that for every school year that governments do not meet their obligations under s. 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there was an increased likelihood of assimilation which carries the risk that numbers might cease to “warrant”, and thus extinguishing the right to school instruction in a official minority language.
4. Caring Society (No. 15), at para. 344.
5. Ibid, at para. 481.
6. APTN Interview with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dated June 3, 2016, available at: http://aptn.ca/news/2016/06/03/pm-trudeau-faces-wide-array-of-question-d....
7. For more information about the calls, see APTN story which aired on June 21, 2016, available at http://aptn.ca/news/2016/06/21/indigenous-affairs-help-lines-dont-work-a....
8. On June 7, 2016, the Caring Society contacted the regional offices and numbers on the website and asked to speak to the person in charge of Jordan's Principle cases noting that the INAC website says that persons with questions regarding Jordan's Principle should call the regional INAC office. The object of the exercise was to ensure members of the public with Jordan's Principle cases were able to bring them to INAC's attention and have them addressed. The Caring Society contacted the 1-800 number listed under the Atlantic, Quebec and Manitoba Regions and the person receiving the call advised that they did not have a contact person and that they would send out a general email. The number listed for Quebec Region (1-800-263-5592) yielded a completely automated system with five options to leave messages about specific topics. None of the topics included Jordan's Principle inquiries. The number listed for the Atlantic Region appeared to be out of order as multiple calls yielded only a tone at the end of the line. Calls to the remaining regional offices of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and the Yukon revealed polite responses from staff but did not yield a person to speak to about the cases. The Caring Society received responses ranging from options only to leave messages on voice mail to staff saying they did not know what Jordan's Principle was, to being referred to the First Nations Health Authority (in BC) and suggesting they leave a message for a person who would not be back in the office for several days. Ontario region did contact the Caring Society several hours after our call with the names and addresses of persons to reach.
9. Letter from the CHRT to the parties dated June 14, 2016.
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