OTTAWA — The federal government discriminated against children on reserves in its funding of child welfare services, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal said in a landmark ruling Tuesday.
The quasi-judicial body published its findings nine years after a complaint from the Assembly of First Nations and The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, which argued the federal government failed to provide First Nations children with the same level of services that exist elsewhere.
In the decision, which is considered legally binding, the tribunal found First Nations are adversely impacted by the services provided by the government and, in some cases, denied services as a result of the government's involvement.
"The panel acknowledges the suffering of those First Nations children and families who are or have been denied an equitable opportunity to remain together or to be reunited in a timely manner," the ruling said.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said the decision marks a great day for First Nations children and for Canadians who believe in justice and fairness.
She is urging the federal government to take immediate action, adding she will be watching to see how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds, given his commitment to implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission, which spent six years documenting the painful residential school legacy, called on all levels of government to reduce the number of aboriginal children taken into care by providing adequate resources for communities and child-welfare organizations.
"We need to make sure these children get what they need immediately," Blackstock said.
"I can't think of a lower thing that a federal government can do than racially discriminate against ... kids, know that they're doing it, know it is harming them by unnecessarily removing them from their families, have the recommendations in their hands where they could have made it better -- and they don't do it."
While the government faces a tough economic climate, Canadians understand the need to support equity, she added.
"We have to decide as Canadians: is that the way we want our fiscal policy done?"
Charlie Angus, the NDP's indigenous affairs critic, called the decision a "watershed moment."
"The bill has come due for generations of denial and systematic negligence that has been perpetrated by Indian Affairs, by Health Canada, by the Justice Department against indigenous children," he said.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former B.C. regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, welcomed the decision alongside Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
The Liberal government was not surprised by the ruling, said Wilson-Raybould, noting it is committed to acting on the child welfare issue and to working toward a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada's indigenous peoples.
"This is a good day," she said.
"This is about equality. This is about ensuring that there is equal investment, and it is not just in terms of money, it is in terms of outcomes, that we create the space in this country for every child to be able to succeed ... this is the place and time."
Wilson-Raybould and Bennett stopped short of providing a dollar figure on how much it will cost to close the financial gap and address the discrimination flagged by the tribunal.
"We know we are going to have to significantly increase the dollars that are available for child welfare programs," Bennett said.
Angus estimated the figure will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"How much money is being denied regularly on live-saving drugs, access to proper wheelchairs -- we don't have a number on that," Angus said.
"I bet they have a number ... I can't believe that these departments are not being kept up on what is coming down the road. The other issue is what are they going to pay in compensation for the damage that they've done to this generation of young people?"