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Federal government’s legal fees for Indigenous child welfare case now exceed $800K

Jane Philpott speaks to reporters at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary in a Jan. 23, 2017 file photo.
Jane Philpott speaks to reporters at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary in a Jan. 23, 2017 file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Legal costs linked to the government’s ongoing back-and-forth at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal over the implementation of Jordan’s Principle have now exceeded $800,000.

According to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who rose in the House of Commons to disclose the total in response to a question from the NDP’s Charlie Angus, $807,000 has been spent over the past 22 months on salaries for federal government lawyers, notaries and paralegals assigned to the controversial case.

Last June, the total stood at $707,000.

The most recent chapter of the decade-long legal saga began in January 2016, when the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued a landmark, legally binding ruling that found First Nations children living on reserve were not being provided with the same essential services as non-Indigenous children — something that the tribunal agreed amounted to discrimination.

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Since then, the government has been slapped with three non-compliance orders for failing to implement Jordan’s Principle. The principle, named for a five-year-old Indigenous boy from Manitoba who spent his entire short life in hospital, states that when a patient needs treatment or services, they must be provided immediately regardless of any disputes over which level of government should ultimately foot the bill.

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The Trudeau government initially responded to the last non-compliance order (issued in May) by saying it needed to seek “clarity” from the Federal Court. Then, earlier this month, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced that an agreement had been reached out of court on those points.

Meanwhile, however, the entire endeavour has been costing Canadian taxpayers money.

The salaries amounting to $807,000 would have been paid regardless of the casework being done by government staffers, but the Liberals have faced harsh criticism in recent months for failing to simply implement the tribunal’s decision rather than arguing over it.

READ MORE: 5 things to know about landmark ruling on First Nations child welfare case

Ottawa has also been blasted for legal costs linked to other cases involving Indigenous Canadians, including one where the government reportedly spent $110,000 fighting a young girl’s claim for $6,000 in orthodontic work.

“Cases through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal have brought about a number of legal proceedings, but I would like to state clearly my expectations with respect to the use of lawyers,” said Philpott in an emailed statement sent to Global News on Tuesday.

“Our priority is to see that the orders from the tribunal are implemented. To the extent we need legal advice to assist us in implementing these orders, negotiating settlements, or conducting proceedings before the tribunal, we will do so. But, we must do what we can to minimize the need to involve lawyers.”

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READ MORE: Ottawa’s failure to act is putting children’s lives on the line, says First Nations advocate

Philpott’s office has also taken pains to highlight that $382.5 million in federal funding has been earmarked over three years (2016-2019) to help implement Jordan’s Principle, with funding ramping up in each of those years.

A department spokesperson said Tuesday that over 24,000 requests for health, social and educational products or services have now been approved for First Nations children under the Jordan’s Principle Child-First Initiative.

‘We’re losing kids’

But NDP MP Angus, who serves as the party’s Indigenous youth critic, said the government is still falling far short of expectations.

“We’ve had battle after battle at the human rights tribunal as the government has tried to limit their obligations, ignored the ruling, and now nearly a million dollars later they’re finally starting to move on Jordan’s Principle, but they’re still fighting on the issues of chronic underfunding of the foster care system. And we’re losing kids all the time to this underfunding,” Angus said Tuesday.

“It shouldn’t take $800,000 in legal fees. It shouldn’t take numerous compliance orders to get them to admit that the lives of Indigenous children should have the same value as any other life in this country.”

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, helped file the original complaint to the human rights tribunal a decade ago. She said recently that she was happy with the government’s decision not to continue arguing over the 2016 decision, but that Ottawa needs to back that up with immediate action and fully comply with the tribunal’s decision.

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