Thank you very much, members, for having me here today.
I, too, would like to join in the recognition of the unceded Algonquin territory, and also to recognize Regional Chief Bill Erasmus, who is with me today.
We're here at a moment of Canada's history that many of our ancestors collectively prayed for, a time when we would reach out and embrace the reality that the federal government is racially discriminating against first nation children as a fiscal policy, and recognize that we have an opportunity to stop that practice and together raise a generation of first nations children who don't have to recover from their childhoods, and a generation of non-aboriginal children who never have to grow up to say they're sorry.
The undisputed facts are these.
In 2007 the Assembly of First Nations and the Caring Society filed a complaint against the federal government. There were two allegations.
The first one was that the federal government failed to implement equitable child welfare services for first nations children on reserve and in Yukon Territory and that this inequality was known to the federal government, that they agreed with it, and they had solutions to remedy it but failed to do so. Thus it perpetuated racial discrimination in one of the worst ways. As the tribunal would later say, that incentivized, and in fact led to, the removal of children from their families in ways that were similar to what happened during the residential school era.
The second allegation is with regard to access to public services. First nations children are often denied, delayed, or disrupted in their access to public services available to all other children because of jurisdictional payments disputes within the federal government or between the federal government and other levels of government. This has been going on for many decades. Jordan's principle was intended to allow first nations children to access services on the same terms as other children. It was passed by the House of Commons in motion 296 in December, 2007. That should have been the end of these disruptions and denials of services, but unfortunately, it was never properly implemented.
There were two findings from the case and, as you all know, the federal government, unfortunately, fought this case on legal technicalities for nine years. I think is important for us to realize that that period represents half of the childhood of a generation of children. However, on January 26 of this year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal made two significant findings.
Number one was that the federal government is racially discriminating against 163,000 children. I think we need to let that sink in for a moment, because there are lots of issues that will come before this table, but I would argue that there is none more important than ceasing the racial discrimination against 163,000 little kids on reserve.
The second is that, yes, Canada's failure to implement Jordan's principle was racially discriminatory and unlawful. The tribunal noted in its decision that Canada—yes, indeed—knew better, had the opportunity to do better, but failed to do so repeatedly throughout history, and that this failure was resulting in the unbelievable removals of first nations children. In fact, we have in evidence that between 1989 and 2012, first nations children spent over 66 million nights in foster care, or 167,000 years of childhood. Many of those nights could have been spent at home, had these children not been racially discriminated against.
Another finding was that this disadvantage was broadening the disadvantage of residential schools. The tribunal makes specific note that Canada's current and ongoing racial discrimination is deepening the harm, and not narrowing the harm.
It immediately issued two orders. One is that Canada cease its discriminatory funding for child and family services and immediately implement Jordan's principle across all government services and across all types of jurisdictional disputes, ensuring that first nations children have equitable access.
There is lots of talk at this table about the necessity of, for example, accessing mental health services for first nations children, but I first want to talk about the burden that the federal government's racial discrimination itself places on the safety and well-being children. In evidence before the tribunal, we saw senior level federal government documents acknowledging that the government also funds inequitably education, social assistance, and basics like water and housing, on top of the known inequalities in child welfare. The federal government's own document stated that this creates dire circumstances. This woefully inadequate funding was putting children at high risk for death and that multiplier was affecting existing inequalities and getting in the way of children being able to live the lives they wish to have.
We know from a great study in the United States called the “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study” that the more multiple barriers that disadvantaged childhood experience, particularly in early childhood, the less they are going to be able to live a healthy and happy life. The ways you're treated as a child predict things like coronary disease in your sixties.
The other thing that's important for us to think about is the access by children themselves. We saw repeated denials of services. To give you an example, the Ontario Child and Family Services Act requires that mental health services be provided as part of the statutory requirements, but the funding agreement between Ontario and the federal government for child and family services has not been updated since 1978, meaning that those children on reserve were not getting reimbursed for these services that came in later versions of the statute. That meant that first nations children, according to the federal government's own witness, were denied these services, that Ontario was not picking up those services, and therefore the neediest children, the ones who were continuing to be disadvantaged by this ongoing racial discrimination, had no access to the very services that were intended to remediate it.
We all know that the tribunal's order is binding. I think that's important for us to keep in mind. This isn't another program where the government has discretion. The federal government welcomed the decision and chose not to judicially review it.
Since the decision, the federal government made a budget announcement, which it has profiled in later submissions as being its immediate relief measures. It has announced $71 million for child welfare for this year, rising to $99 million next year; but 50% of the full budget for child welfare is reserved for years four and five. I'll talk about that incremental approach, in that childhoods are not incremental and these discrimination orders are not to reduce the discrimination over five years, but to end it immediately. It's vital that this be done.
The other reason I feel that the $71 million is inadequate is that our own calculations at the society suggest that $216 million-plus is needed. However, even if we were to rely on the federal government's own conservative estimates, which in evidence before the tribunal have been said to be inadequate, a federal government document said that as of 2012, at least $108.1 million was needed. That number should have gone up, adjusted for inflation. There's no explanation as to why it went down.
Further submissions by the federal government to the tribunal suggest that not all of this $71 million is going to children and families. Only $60 million of it is going to children and families, and about $10.5 million of it is going internally for the department's own costs.
To give you a case study of what that means, that same 2012 PowerPoint point document in which the $108.1 million was cited suggests that a minimum of $21 million is needed for the region of British Columbia, but the federal government's own estimates say they're only going to be providing $5.3 million this year. That's about 25% of what was needed in 2012, and that number will only rise to $14.3 million after four years. Think about this. This is a child who was a baby and who's now getting ready to go to preschool, and they are only getting 67% of what the federal government projected as being necessary in 2012.
Another issue is program transfers. We welcome the federal government's announcements on water, housing, and fire protection, but we're also concerned, because we have seen on the record that the federal government has been transferring $98 million per annum out of infrastructure to offset its underfunding of education, social assistance, and child welfare. One PowerPoint slide we've seen from the senior federal level says that that amounted to half a billion dollars. So if those funds continue to be transferred, then we're going to see those deficits, those schools not being built, and the housing and the water not being allocated as they should be.
What are my recommendations? Number one is that the federal government must comply fully with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's order. We have issued a submission to the tribunal, dated yesterday, that spells out the significant shortfalls we have found in the federal government's compliance with that.
Number two is that we would reject, across all children's programs, any concept of incremental equality. No other child in this country has to be told “no” for five years and strive for equal treatment.
Number three is that we appoint an independent process to oversee and audit all first nations programs to identify areas of other inequality and to move swiftly, as part of a Marshall Plan, to redress those.
Another thing we need to do is ensure full implementation of Jordan's principle. That principle was passed and has never been fully implemented. Right up to today, children are being denied services.
Thank you, committee members. I welcome your questions.
The shortfall in education is certainly a key one. I know there are investments, but, again, they fall into the same peril as child welfare, in that they're rolled out over five years, with 50% of the investment not coming come until year five. If you're a kid in grade 8, you won't see the full benefit that investment.
I like to collect old documents and I have a report in my office commissioned by the former Department of Indian Affairs for the education of children in Ontario. It was written by a man named R. Alex Sim. At the time, he recommended reforms in education, including first nations control over education, equity in education, and ensuring that there was appropriate curriculum on aboriginal peoples in the curriculum. He wrote, “Can anyone hazard a guess as to what year or what century real progress will be made toward the equality of Indian children?” That was written in 1967. I was three years old. I was one of those kids that recommendation could have helped. We're still at it. Those recommendations are still on the table and I'm 51 years old.
I talk to first nations students who are going to these underfunded schools, and it is so painful to talk to them. I remember meeting Chelsey Edwards from Attawapiskat First Nation, who took over as spokesperson for the Shannen’s Dream for Safe and Comfy Schools and equitable education campaign. She was about 15 years old and said to me, “Cindy, it's too late for my childhood, it's too late for me to be treated equally, but it's not too late for a baby born today, maybe we can do something for that baby.”
That's why we can't get addicted to this concept of incremental equality. It never comes. Children don't have incremental childhoods. Even though it may make sense at a government level to flow things over five years, it wouldn't make sense if you were a child in that school, or the parent of a child who's not being given the same opportunity to succeed. There would be no way that you would tolerate it. There's no way that you should tolerate it. Yet, we have become comfortable with this in Canadian society. That needs to be addressed immediately.
The other issues are the reality that many first nations live in third world country conditions. I have heard this rhetoric over the years that, well, we can't get clean water up to some of these communities. If we can get a Twitter feed to a guy in space, surely we can get clean water pumping into Tyendinaga First Nation, an hour and a half outside of Toronto. These are things that we can do if we're motivated to do them. I don't think there's any excuse for a country that is among the 11 wealthiest nations in the world to not be providing clean drinking water to every citizen in the country.
The final thing is to remind ourselves that we aren't doing our best job for all of Canada's children. There's an international ranking called the KidsRights Index. It looks at how well the countries are doing in proportion to their wealth to their nation's children. Last year, Canada ranked 57th in the world.
That leaves a lot of room for improvement for one of the wealthiest countries. As parliamentarians I encourage you to put children on the agenda more often. The economy is doing better than children because you talk about it more and you pay a lot more attention to it. The real reason for an economy is to ensure that children are benefiting and that we're creating a sustainable society, and that means paying attention to kids.
Yes, thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to first of all acknowledge the Creator, the creation, the prayers, and the protocols. I also want to acknowledge the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I want to acknowledge Cindy Blackstock, the previous presenter, and thank her for all the work she's been undertaking with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on child welfare.
As well, I want to note that I have Ken Young sitting beside me, as a reminder and recognition of the era of reconciliation. Ken is a Indian residential school survivor. He's a leader in our first nations communities and somebody who well knows these issues. I have him beside me to help keep me focused on the fact that much of what we're doing is about the modern era of reconciliation and the important work that needs to be done through these committee presentations.
I also want to acknowledge the first nations leadership that is here, and the committee members.
I am presenting as the Ontario regional chief, and as a member of the AFN executive who holds the portfolio for health, and the chair of the Chiefs Committee on Health at the AFN.
I am also presenting as a proud member of the Serpent River First Nation, and as such, these are not just policy discussions for me, but literally life and death discussions and decisions that must be made here in Ottawa and that will profoundly impact the families in communities like mine.
We must always be on guard for the issue of suicide. As we've seen in recent days, the community of Woodstock in southern Ontario has fallen victim to a trend of suicide that's putting the question of suicide in front of all Canadians.
Before I proceed with my remarks, let me point out that the current suicide crisis will only end if we have addressed all the social determinants of health.
Our communities need clean water, safe and adequate housing, a decent education system, and economically sustainable communities. Once we move from the third world conditions in our communities to those of mainstream Canada, and once our children are no longer living in desperate situations, then this national crisis will end. Simply put, the people sitting around this table can finally recommend that we end Canada's greatest shames: first nation poverty and despair, and its manifestation in suicide.
When it comes to the roots of the crisis, as you have heard throughout your study, suicide in first nations communities is the result of the coming together of many historical, social, political, economic, and environmental factors that collectively make up the social determinants of health. I want to underscore one thing. I don't want to get into it in-depth, but I must also underscore the serious nature of climate change and what that must be doing to the minds of individuals, and the collective identity and feelings that people must have in the remote north. I believe that some of the suicidal ideation can be and probably is connected to the issue of climate change.
The most profound of these factors is settler colonialism. Colonialism displaced first nations people from our lands and waters, and thus our sources of identity, spirituality, and economic security. First nations governance systems were undermined and replaced by foreign systems based on profoundly different world views grounded in hierarchy and patriarchy. Our languages were literally beaten out of the children at the residential schools. Children were stolen from their homes to face physical, sexual, and psychological abuse in these schools.
The staggering rates of first nation children in the child welfare system demonstrate that this painful legacy continues, as eloquently outlined in great detail by Cindy Blackstock in the previous presentation.
First nations youth face the daily stress of having to face a Canadian society that claims to be built on the principles of fairness, justice, and respect for diversity, while they survive in communities without basic necessities like schools and clean water. At the same time, the comments sections of new stories about them are filled with comments that they are living the high life on the taxpayers' dime.
With all of this in mind, the suicide crisis facing our youth should come as no surprise. In fact, it is an entirely expected outcome given what our youth and our communities face every single day.
I must point out that the demographic profile of those who attempt or commit suicide is vastly changing. Children and elders in their twilight years committing suicide is not the norm, but that is becoming increasingly evident in the statistics on suicide in first nations. The suicide of a 10-year-old boy in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory and an elder in the Treaty 3 region are just two examples that I would cite where the culminating issues had to do with the lack of primary health and mental health services—point blank, as a result of funding cuts to health services in first nations over the last decade.
The question then becomes: what can be done?
I will move forward to address suicide. It is imperative to address the social determinants of health in first nations and to support and advocate for community-based approaches to suicide prevention, which our youth refer to as “life promotion”, which simply means investing and paying it forward in developing programs for youth and their communities. Youth need the decision-makers to prioritize them and to generate hope among them through strategic investment.
We commend for meeting with our youth just yesterday. I want to quote something that the minister said, as it pertains to the meeting:
||I am grateful for this opportunity to speak directly with First Nations youth, and I want to thank the AFN National Youth Council members for bringing their concerns and ideas to the table. Their willingness to talk about their challenges, and how we can work together to address them, helps me better understand how the Government of Canada can support their well-being. Their support is a critical factor in generating positive, long-term change.
I must commend the youth, the AFN, and the minister for their efforts and the important work that will come from the round table.
At the same time I want to see three things resulting from Minister Philpott's words. The first is that we need action now—defined, budgeted, and collaborative efforts. The second thing is that we need the minister to ensure that medium- and long-term planning in health accord negotiations must formally include our youth as part of that process. Thirdly, we need the minister to work with the youth of the AFN to formalize life promotion as more than just ideology. We need to build strategic investments that work towards the diminishment of suicide through programs aimed at moving from the current national suicide crisis in our youth populations to a greater focus of strengthening a new generation of young people who are empowered to want life over death. Of course, their lives must be seen as worthy, worth living, and worth the effort of strategic investments by this government.
We need the full implementation of the first nations mental wellness continuum framework and the added element of youth in life-promotion strategies. The framework outlines opportunities to build on community strengths and control of resources in order to improve existing mental wellness programs for first nation communities. This includes community development, as indicated by the previous speaker; quality care systems and competent service delivery; collaboration with partners; enhanced flexible funding; and ensuring that culture is at the centre of the mental wellness continuum framework.
Full implementation means increasing the amount of flexibility of resources to increase capacity, and to ensure quality care systems and competent care delivery so that all first nations have access to the essential basket of services that make up the continuum of care.
On the social determinants of health, as mentioned previously, health outcomes cannot be addressed by health care system interventions alone. What is required is a real and substantial investment in the social determinants of health, including adequate and safe infrastructure, culturally relevant education, a reformed child welfare system, and economic opportunities, among other things.
In addition, research demonstrates that self-determination and cultural continuity act as an important hedge against youth suicide; therefore, community self-determination and support for cultural activities are also life-promotion activities that are needed.
With the commitment to nation-to-nation dealings, and the investments in budget 2016, the new government has made an important step in addressing the social determinants of health, but the reality is that first nation youth continue to sit in mouldy, over-crowded houses without clean water. Much work needs to be done. They have waited long enough.
This is really helpful because I did get a Facebook message from a young woman in one of our northern communities. She said, “I hear there's an emergency response team going to Attawapiskat. Could you drop a couple of workers off in our community because we don't have any?”
I want to go to ground. In 2009, we had a horrific suicide crisis in the James Bay region and Chief Jonathan Solomon spoke eloquently of that. At that time, the provincial workers were laying off staff at Payukotayno because they had spent their budget, because they were working around the clock trying to keep children alive.
Then there was a big outcry, so the provincial government augmented its efforts, and said they would hire new workers. In 2012, when nobody was paying attention, they laid them all off.
In 2014, I was in the communities and we had children on suicide watch because there were no mental health workers and the only tool they had was to take the children into custody and put them into child welfare and foster care, as they had no other tools to help these children. The children were going to ground.
In 2016, we have another huge blow-up of a suicide crisis and everybody was wringing their hands and saying, “How did this happen?”
It seems to me that if we don't have the ongoing support on the ground to respond to young people when they need it, what we're seeing in northern Manitoba, Attawapiskat, Pikangikum is the result. You have the experience.
What do we need to make sure that we don't have to respond in the middle of a crisis, but are preventing a crisis?
No. That's fine. I'm going to try to address that by saying, first of all, thank you for that, because it's an important question.
As for taking suicide out of the culture, culture has become probably the central focus of the solutions that are most needed around the issue of suicide. In my opening comments I talked about settler colonialism and said there's been a colonial conditioning out of the Indian Act system and within the residential school system.
We would not be here with the knowledge of reconciliation that we have today if it weren't for people like Ken Young and the residential school survivors who shouldered the responsibility to convey what the issues were and what happened to them.
One of those things was that these children—our grandparents, our aunties, uncles, our mothers and fathers—were ripped apart, and not just from their families, but from their communities. We know that for sure; there is no question about it. Having that identity put back in place, the languages, the connection to the land, the customs, the traditions, is so much part of the solution. That has never been done in the past.
I think we have to get back to this notion of a community-based response to that exercise. You will find that our first nation people will trust more those who have gone through a healing process, who have actually dealt with family violence, who have actually come through that horrific time in their life, and who have said, “Do you know what? Things aren't what I want them to be, but they're a lot better than what they were before.”
The healing of our individual community members, as well as the families, and the connection to the land and utilizing the land in that healing process is so vital, and it's so obvious now.