Whitney, Josh, and Greg were ages two, four, and six when they died in an accidental fire. Camden died of sepsis at eight years old. Chara and Skye were teenagers when they died of drug toxicity and Trevor died in a homicide when he was 20.
All seven were First Nations children or youth from Alberta who died within a 14-month period in 2018 and 2019. Their deaths were investigated in a recent report by Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate because they each died within two years of receiving child intervention services from the Alberta government.
While the report by Del Graff, Child and Youth Advocate for Alberta focused on recommendations for provincial programs and departments, it points out the federal government shares responsibility for the Indigenous children that died during or after receiving government care.
“This issue cannot be resolved without equitable and accessible funding and services for these populations,” Graff writes in the report.
“Often, federal funding for First Nation communities to provide public services is not comparable to their provincially funded counterparts. Governments need to work collaboratively to address this deficit so support services are equitable and accessible for Indigenous people.”
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, agrees.
“The federal government funds public services on reserves and in the Yukon, and since Confederation, they’ve provided less funding for public services than all other Canadians receive,” Blackstock says.
“This creates a toxic situation where kids are trying to recover from multigenerational trauma but they have less help to do so.”
Several decades after the last residential school closed in this country, Canada’s child welfare system appears to have taken its place. There are currently thousands of Indigenous children in care.
According to 2016 census data, while Indigenous children account for only 7.7 per cent of the child population, they account for 52.2 per cent of the children in foster care.
Blackstock says if the federal government is serious about reconciliation with indigenous peoples, this issue of Indigenous kids in care has to be addressed.
“Keep in mind, that among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, equity in child welfare is their number one ask,” she says. “(Residential school survivors) told their truths through their pain so their grandchildren didn’t have to go through it but they are going through it.”
Blackstock hopes voters will think about this when they cast their ballots on Monday in the federal election.
“When you go the (federal parties’) platforms, look at their commitments to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Calls to Action and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Calls for Justice and also press them to see if they will stop litigating against First Nations children and residential school survivors in court.”
She’s referring to a judicial review filed by the federal government of two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings.
One awarded First Nations children inappropriately taken away from their parents after 2006 $40,000 each and to their parents and grandparents.
The second expanded Jordan’s Principle to children who live off-reserve or who are not registered under the Indian Act. Jordan’s Principle is a rule stating that when different levels of government disagree about who’s responsible for providing services to First Nations children, they must help a child in need first and argue over the bills later.
Ashley Bach, a member of the Mishkeegogamang First Nation, was taken into the child welfare system in British Columbia at birth. For her, the need to improve the system is deeply personal.
“When I got into youth in care advocacy I was young and I was hopeful. I was a little naïve too, so I sincerely believed I’d be able to change the system for my foster siblings before they aged out of care,” said Bach, who is now 27 years old.
“One of my youngest siblings now is in the process of aging out of care and as much as it hurts to say this, the system really hasn’t changed much.”
Bach says she’d like to see all indigenous kids in care maintain access to their home communities, land, and language and she says Indigenous youth need more support when they age out of care.
“When you hit that age, it’s like one day you’re young enough to receive supports, and the next day you’re just kicked out of the house and that needs to change now.”
What the federal parties have promised for indigenous children and youth
In its campaign platform, the federal Liberal party is promising to fully fund Jordan’s Principle and the Inuit Child First Initiative. It also promises to continue to work with the Métis Nation to fund the unique needs of Métis children.
The NDP has also pledged to fully fund Jordan’s Principle. It has also committed to fully implement the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order to stop chronically underfunding child welfare services on reserve. The platform promises to “take immediate action to respect, support and resource Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare systems,” backed by “long-term, predictable funding guaranteed in legislation”
The Conservatives are less specific when it comes to Indigenous children in care. There is no mention in the party platform of funding Jordan’s Principle. It says, “Recent reports, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, have identified significant gaps in opportunity and outcome between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. All levels of government need to engage with Indigenous peoples to make meaningful progress in closing these gaps.”
The Green Party promises, “to stop fighting the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders requiring the government to compensate the child and family victims of Canada’s discrimination; and ensure non-status First Nations’ children living off-reserve have access to Jordan’s Principle.”