First Nations Child and Family Caring Society
Chronic underfunding of child and family services for Aboriginal children prompted the NGO called First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (the Society) to file a discrimination complaint against Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The Society argued that Aboriginal children on-reserve receive 22 per cent fewer funds as compared to non-Aboriginal children. INAC argued that discriminatory funding is permissible because Aboriginal children are the only group funded by the federal government.
The Society alleges that the federal government retaliated by excluding the Society's Executive Director Cindy Blackstock from meetings, resulting in a second complaint against INAC in relation to that alleged reprisal. Documents later obtained by Blackstock show that INAC officials have been subjecting her to systematic surveillance in her professional and personal life.
In February 2007, the Society and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) filed a discrimination complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)- now called Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) is an independent government body that oversees the Canadian Human Rights Act. It investigates complaints about discriminatory practices arising under federal jurisdiction, which includes the services provided to First Nations people living on reserve.
The complaint alleged that INAC funding for Aboriginal family services at the federal level is significantly less than funding for off-reserve children who receive the same or comparable services from provincial governments. The Society and the AFN argue that the underfunding of services for on-reserve Aboriginal children is discriminatory under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
In October 2008, the Commission referred the case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for a hearing. This step occurs when the Commission has determined that there is sufficient evidence to support the complaint.
In 2009, the Harper government appointed a new Chair to the Tribunal, Shirish P. Chotalia, who took over the management of the case and introduced last-minute procedural changes that were strongly objected to by the parties. In December 2009, the government introduced a motion to dismiss the case on a preliminary basis, arguing that the CHRC had no jurisdiction to hear the case.
The Society alleges that between 2008 and 2009 INAC retaliated by excluding the Society’s Executive Director, Cindy Blackstock, from meetings between INAC and other Aboriginal leaders. The Society believes that this exclusion occurred as a form of retaliation in response to its human rights complaint.
For example, in December 2009, Blackstock was invited by the Chiefs of Ontario as a technical aid to attend a meeting at INAC regarding child welfare funding in Ontario. Upon her arrival at the meeting, Blackstock alleges that an INAC official refused to meet with the Chiefs of Ontario if Blackstock was present. She also alleges that the official stated that he was aware that she had some “issues” regarding child welfare, including a human rights complaint. Blackstock was made to wait outside of the meeting. Blackstock further alleges that another similar incident of exclusion occurred in 2008 and that this adverse treatment contrasts the working relationship she had with INAC prior to submitting the human rights complaint.
In December 2009, the Society asked the Tribunal for permission to amend its complaint to include its retaliation allegations. The Society argued that by excluding Blackstock from meetings, INAC had treated it in an adverse and prejudicial manner and that this treatment constituted an act of retaliation against the Society. The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits retaliation against human rights complainants.
In June 2010, Tribunal Chair Chotalia began hearing the case, but the case soon stalled. A year later, Chotalia had held no further hearings, issued no decision and refused to consider the Society’s motion to add the retaliation allegations. Since the retaliation complaint had to be filed within a year, the Tribunal’s delay forced the Society to re-file its retaliation complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in February 2011 in order to preserve its right to make the complaint. The acting Chief of the Canadian Human Rights Commission publicly criticized the Tribunal for inordinate delay.
Faced with the Tribunal’s lack of action, in February 2011, lawyers for the Society made the unprecedented decision to apply to the Federal Court of Canada and request that the Court force the Tribunal to hold hearings into the merits of the case.
Tribunal decides case unfairly
Less than a month later, Chair Chotalia dismissed the first complaint, finding that INAC was not responsible for discriminatory funding practices. Chotalia did not hear the full case, but reasoned on a preliminary basis that, as a matter of human rights law, federal funding of services for on-reserve Aboriginal children could not be compared with the provincial funding of services for off-reserve children.
In April 2011, the Canadian Human Rights Commission applied to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of the Tribunal’s decision. The Commission alleged that the Tribunal had applied the law incorrectly, and further that it had erroneously failed to conduct a full inquiry into the merits of the complaint, thereby violating basic principles of procedural fairness.
Federal Court overturns Tribunal
In April 2012, the Federal Court ruled that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal had decided the case unfairly. It had dismissed a complex case of critical importance without hearing the full case on the merits, basing its decision on extrinsic evidence that was not properly introduced. The matter was sent back to the Tribunal for a new hearing with a differently constituted panel.
In October 2012 the new panel granted the Society’s application, filed in December 2009, to amend the Society’s initial human rights complaint to include the retaliation complaint. As a result, the Tribunal will now consider both complaints together at the same time. The Tribunal has not made a final decision regarding either complaint.
- February 2007: The Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, against Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
- October 2008: The Commission refers the case to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
- 2008-2009: The Society alleges that its Executive Director, Cindy Blackstock, was excluded from meetings between INAC and Aboriginal Chiefs.
- January 2010: The Society amends its complaint to include the allegations of exclusion.
- 2009-2011: After a successful Access to Information Request filed by Blackstock, she alleges that INAC has been systematically monitoring her private life.
- 2010: The government-appointed Tribunal Chair, Shirish Chotalia, begins hearing the case. There would not be another hearing for almost a year: this delay was publicly criticized by the acting Chief of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
- February 2011: The Society applies to the Federal Court of Canada to force the Tribunal to hold hearings.
- March 2011: Chair Chotalia dismisses the case on a preliminary basis, upholding separate but unequal services for on-reserve Aboriginal children.
- April 2011: The Canadian Human Rights Commission applies to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review of the decision.
- April 2012: The judicial review of the Tribunal's decision is successful. The Federal Court overturns the Tribunal, holding that its decision to dismiss was unfair. The complaint is sent back to the Tribunal.
Role or Position
Implications and Consequences
- Equality: The impact of the federal government’s policy is that Aboriginal persons living on-reserve do not have the same right to essential public services as persons living off-reserve. This creates a situation that has a significant and disproportionately negative impact on Aboriginal persons.
- Fairness: The government's application for a preliminary dismissal of the Society’s complaint and to avoid a full hearing of the case lead to a decision by the Tribunal that the Federal Court of Canada later found to be unfair to the Society. Although the Federal Court overturned the Tribunal’s decision to uphold the government policy, it will continue until a final judicial decision is made and all rights of appeal are exhausted.
- Democracy: That an entire group of vulnerable children should receive inferior services as a matter of federal government policy is contrary to any acceptable notion of the rule of law and democratic governance in a developed country.
- Free Speech: INAC’s alleged targeted surveillance of Blackstock in her personal and professional life raises serious concerns about intimidation, breach of privacy and personal attacks on individuals who are critical of government policy. This type of scrutiny can make individuals vulnerable to government retaliation simply on the basis of their political opinions. It can also create a “chill effect” that causes other Canadians to fear to express opinions that are critical of government policies and decisions.
Date updated: 1 November 2012