By Marv Bernstein, Chief Policy Advisor
On February 25, 2013, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal will reconvene a hearing to determine whether the present funding arrangement for the provision of child welfare services to First Nations children and families on reserves is discriminatory. The hearings are scheduled to continue until August.
There is considerable evidence from a variety of sources in government, academic and service organizations that funding for child welfare services for First Nations children living on reserves (provided by the federal department of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada) is less than the funding for child welfare services for other Canadian children provided by provincial and territorial governments. This is particularly the case in the areas of prevention and early intervention supports.
All Canadian children have equal rights to survival, protection, optimal development and non-discrimination, and to have their best interests treated as a primary consideration in all government decision-making. The Government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that laws, policies, funding and services that provide for these rights do so equitably, having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991.
UNICEF Canada is pleased that the tribunal hearing is finally reconvening so that a determination on the merits can occur at the earliest possible opportunity. It is a concern that through the lengthy litigation process, thousands of First Nations children living on reserves continue to be disadvantaged and denied the full range of child welfare services to which they are entitled.
While the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal provides a legitimate forum for the resolution and adjudication of human rights complaints, there are other things that Canada can be doing concurrently. For example, Canada can put in place the mechanisms that would effectively promote the equitable treatment of all Canadian children – mechanisms that are part of our obligations under international law and that work to positive effect in many other countries.
These include: 1) legislation to protect the rights of all Canadian children – no matter where they live in Canada; 2) a national Children’s Commissioner with authority to address inter-jurisdictional conflicts and mediate children’s rights complaints; 3) the use of Child Rights Impact Assessments to ensure that both intended and unintended impacts are considered before legislation, policy, programming and other administrative decisions are implemented; and 4) a clear and transparent ‘children’s budget’ that tracks all federal and provincial expenditures on children and any resulting disparities between different groups of children. As well, funding formulas for services should be subject to consultation and debate to ensure that they are transparent and effective.
These are practical steps that would help to ensure that all children in Canada are treated equitably and have similar opportunities to survive and develop to their full potential. Our First Nations children, who reside on reserves and are subject to a flawed funding framework, deserve a stronger commitment from all of us to correct this fundamental unfairness and change the quality of their lives for the better.