Cindy Blackstock, hero

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When former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin negotiated the Kelowna Accord with Canada’s First Nations representatives and provinces in November 2005, it appeared that historical social and educational underfunding for Native communities would soon be addressed. Some $5 billion would have been spent over the following five years to begin to bring standards up to those enjoyed in our non-Native communities.

A few weeks later, Martin’s minority government was defeated in the House of Commons, and Canada was plunged into a federal election, eventually won by Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in January 2006. One of Harper’s first acts on taking office was to kill the Kelowna Accord, and any hope of social or educational equality for Aboriginal children living on reserves. Things would get a lot worse over the next 10 years.

Now, a decade later, the damage has been wrought. Life chances for Native children have fallen much further behind the Canadian average. It’s a deliberate form of discrimination – one confirmed by a landmark ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in a decision handed down January 26.

This underfunding, the Tribunal ruled, has “resulted in denials of services and created various adverse impacts for many First Nations children and families living on reserves.”

With funding levels that haven’t been adjusted since 1995, many Indigenous children were needlessly taken from their families and placed into foster care, says the ruling.

“It is only because of their race and/or national or ethnic origin that they suffer the adverse impacts,” the ruling says. “Furthermore, these adverse impacts perpetuate the historical disadvantage and trauma suffered by Aboriginal people, in particular as a result of the Residential Schools system.”

But now, with a new Liberal government, Canada has a chance to make amends. And the first indications from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are promising. His Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, announced the government would not appeal the Tribunal ruling.

The government’s own documents say the underfunding for welfare on reserves runs between 22% and 34%, compared with provincial rates. It is a clear case of racial discrimination. We will wait for concrete steps to improve conditions in First Nations communities before giving the new Liberal government a pass. The Liberals are past masters at promising progressive policies and then following the policies that create inequality. But for now, we are encouraged.

Certainly, the Liberal approach is a sharp contrast to the Harper Conservatives, who spent $5 million fighting the case at the Tribunal for years, delayed procedures, and hid documents before harassing and spying on the person who brought the case – First Nations Child and Family Caring Society director Cindy Blackstock.

In the wake of the ruling, Blackstock told reporters that evidence her group gave to the Human Rights Tribunal was damning, including many instances of medical equipment or services denied to Aboriginal children because the federal government refused to fund them.

It will cost money to reverse this deadly form of inequality. But as Blackstock observed, “The other way to think about it is how much money have they been saving by racially discriminating against kids.”

She is now a bonafide hero, for her determination and courage in the face of an implacable and malicious foe with all the powers and resources of government behind them. Now, we hope, her bravery will translate into action for the children who have been intentionally victimized by Canada’s government.

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