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OPINION
Discrimination against First Nations children — and the fight to end it: Sen. Pate and Sen. Sinclair
March 9, 2017
Image of Kim Pate
Kim Pate, Ontario
Image of Murray Sinclair
Murray Sinclair, Manitoba

On Valentine’s Day, over 700 Indigenous and non-Indigenous children gathered on the front steps of Parliament Hill to call upon the federal government to do the right thing.

The children sang songs and read poems that called on the Prime Minister, the federal government and all Canadians to treat First Nations children with the equality that they deserve.

Children may not be experts in policy, but they are experts in fairness. And as Canada marks its 150th anniversary, so too does it mark 150 years of colonial and assimilation policies.

It is a sad reality that these injustices persist today, usually taking the form of unequal access to basic government services on reserve. This hits hardest when it comes to schools and child and family services agencies, each of which receives less funding than their provincial equivalents by a long shot.

Without the strong foundations of a healthy body and a cultivated mind, every step in life that most Canadians take with ease becomes an uphill battle.

Well, this was the subject of a ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which found that Ottawa has been racially discriminating against at least 163,000 First Nations children and their families by providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services.

The tribunal ordered the federal government to ensure that First Nations children have access to equivalent public services that are available to other children in Canada and also ordered the government to cease its discrimination towards First Nations children. 

Sadly, still, Canada has not complied with the Tribunal’s orders made over a year ago. Simply put, the government is failing First Nations children by not taking necessary steps to improve their lives, which raises the question: why should these children have to wait for more studies to be completed before receiving the fairness they deserve?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined 94 Calls to Action that address discrimination as a means of making reconciliation possible in Canada. The first five specifically address the inequalities that Indigenous children face in the child welfare system. There are currently more Indigenous children in the child welfare system than there were under the control of the state at the height of the residential school system. In fact, many First Nations communities do not even have access to clean drinking water — the most basic of human needs.

And herein lies the problem. With the commission behind us, now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back. This is only the beginning. We have been told what needs to be done. There is no time left to waste.  

We do not want First Nations children to have to grow up in a country where their lives are less valuable than those of other Canadian children. First Nations children deserve the same opportunities as other children in Canadian society. 

Today, we add our voices to honour the children who did not come home from residential schools, to the children who are currently in care, to the survivors who were victims of the Sixties Scoop, to the youth in Northern communities who have taken their own lives, to the families of the women and girls who have gone missing or have been murdered and to the youth, men and women who are currently in the prison system.

There needs to be systemic change in this country — now — and change begins with all of us, both as individuals and as a society.

What form can this change take?

Well, a start would be equitable funding for basic infrastructure, health care, as well as education and language studies.

We cannot allow First Nations children in this country to continue to suffer at the hands of the state. Canada knows what to do. The Canadian Human Rights Commission and Parliament have told them. Concrete action needs to be taken now.

Murray Sinclair is a senator representing Manitoba. Kim Pate is a senator representing Ontario. Both are members of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, as well as the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

This article appeared in the March 2, 2017 edition of Vice News.

Top photo: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives, Photograph (Saskatchewan National Event): PHSNE_00765, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.