Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was asked to provide the legal costs spent fighting a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order
Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the government was discriminating against First Nations children by not giving them equitable health and social services payments.
Ottawa spent $707,000 in legal fees fighting a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order since January 2016 that insisted they stop discriminating against Indigenous children, according to the attorney general’s office.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus asked Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on April 10 what the government’s total legal costs were in the battle between the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations against the government since Jan. 25, 2016.
Angus just received the answer of $707,000 for legal costs, including disbursements. That is nearly twice the $380,000 needed by Wapekeka First Nation for emergency mental health care after the northern Ontario community uncovered a suicide pact last year. Health Canada denied them the funding and two 12-year-old girls, Jolynn Winter and Chantell Fox, took their lives in January.
“How is it possible the office of (Indigenous Affairs Minister) Carolyn Bennett and (Health Minister) Jane Philpott decided it was awkward to spend money to keep those girls alive but it wasn’t awkward to spend money on lawyers to fight the tribunal?” Angus said Thursday.
After a prolonged legal fight, the tribunal ruled in January 2016, that Canada was breaking the law by not making equitable health and social services payments to Indigenous children living on reserves. On May 26 the tribunal slammed the government’s slow reaction to their ruling, saying they squandered “any chance of preventing” the deaths of Winter and Fox.
The $707,000 could have gone a long way for mental health services for children in need, said Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Family Caring Society.
“I just don’t understand it,” she said. The government has received a series of non-compliance orders from the tribunal since their 2016 ruling.
In an act of desperation, Blackstock wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to personally intervene in this case.
“It should be abundantly clear by now, after four non-compliance orders and the most recent order linking Canada’s non-compliance to the tragic deaths of two 12-year-old girls that these departments are either unwilling or unable to do it on their own. They need leadership from the Prime Minister’s Office to do it,” she said.
“I worry about this non-compliance as each day passes because children and their families continue to live in crisis.”
When contacted by the Star on Thursday, a spokesperson for Philpott’s office pointed to the joint statement released last week by the Health and Indigenous affairs ministries after the latest non-compliance ruling. The statement said more than 4,900 requests for health, social and educational products or services have been approved for children under the Jordan’s Principle Child-First Initiative.
“We are reaching out to First Nations families, health providers and key stakeholders to raise awareness of Jordan’s Principle, encourage families to come forward, and help families obtain the services and supports they need,” the statement said.
In an emailed statement, James Fitzmorris, spokesperson for Bennett, said the department “strongly agrees” with the tribunal’s order to put children first in its approach to First Nations health and social spending. He said the government has been responding to the legal case at the tribunal and “can’t ignore orders to appear.
“Canada fully accepted and is implementing the CHRT ruling of 2016 — all legal fees incurred since then are related to responding to orders from the CHRT to appear and explain the steps Canada is taking to ensure an end to discrimination against First Nations Children in Child and Family services,” the statement said.
Blackstock said the government knows what to do — and that is fund all children equitably — but they are just willingly not doing it.
“That is a very hard thing for me to think about. I have always believed in the goodness of people. I can’t wrap my mind around why good people would not comply with four legal orders,” she said, adding she sent the letter to Trudeau on Monday.
At the heart of the tribunal case is the definition of “Jordan’s Principle,” named after Jordan River Anderson, a 5-year-old boy from Norway House First Nation who died in 2005. Parliament unanimously passed a motion to adopt Jordan’s Principle in 2007, to ensure that all Indigenous children immediately get health and welfare services they need.
In January 2016 the tribunal ruled the government’s definition of Jordan’s Principle was too narrow in its focus on cases where children had “multiple disabilities.” This led to “service gaps, delays and denials for First Nations children,” the tribunal found.
Last year, the Liberal government committed up to $382.5 million over three years to pay for services highlighted by the tribunal’s first ruling on discrimination.