300 human rights complaints made by First Nations

It was revealed today that the Canadian Human Rights Commission has received more than 300 complaints from Indigenous and First Nations groups since 2008. The sheer number is a result of a change in the legislation made by the Conservatives in 2008 to allow Indigenous people to file complaints regarding access to services or the quality of services available to them on reserve—including access to clean water, health, housing, education, policing, and child welfare.

Canada created its Human Rights Commission in 1977 through the Canadian Human Rights Act. This same Act, however, prohibited First Nations people from filing human rights complaints against the Indian Act, effectively protecting the Indian Act from human rights law. It was the removal of this provision that prompted the flood of complaints.

Half of the over-300 complaints were filed against the federal government. Given how thoroughly the Conservatives botched the Attawapiskat fiasco last winter, this comes as little surprise. At least to me. The Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to have been caught completely unawares. Their reaction was typical: rather than attend to the needs of the Indigenous community, they chose to put all resources into defending themselves.

I came across this revealing tidbit on CBC.ca:

One case involving the federal government was brought by the Assembly of First Nations and a child welfare group, who allege that funding for child welfare services on reserves is discriminatory because it’s less than funding provided by provinces and territories for non-aboriginal children off-reserve.

In April, the Federal Court rejected the federal government’s attempts to prevent First Nations groups from arguing for better funding for child welfare on reserves. The federal government had tried to block the case, saying federal and provincial funding levels for services couldn’t be compared.

You see, the Conservatives were arguing that Indigenous people can’t complain about the quality of a federally provided service on a reserve because doing so involves making a comparison, and in this regard there is no group to which they can compare themselves. We the federal government, they argue, only provide child welfare to one group—reserve Aboriginals—and a comparison requires two groups. You can’t compare it with child welfare received by other folks because their service is funded by provincial governments, not the federal government, and thus there is no basis for comparison.

The Federal Court disagreed with this interpretation because it would fail to offer Indigenous people with due protection, and (to paraphrase) essentially screw them over. True enough. The federal government, however, is now appealing this decision. It’s a lot of legal wrangling, but what it comes down to is this: The Conservatives didn’t expect to get 150 human rights complaints directed at them, and now they’re trying to abdicate the very responsibilities to reserve Aboriginals that they themselves took on.

The Human Rights Reporter sums up the situation well:

With respect to Aboriginal people, the situation is distinct. The Government of Canada provides some services only to Aboriginal people on reserves. Similar services—health, education, child welfare—are provided to other Canadians by provincial or territorial governments. If the Canadian Human Rights Act cannot apply when Aboriginal people wish to complain that a service provided only to them is so deficient that it constitutes systemic discrimination, the Act cannot respond to the realities of their lives.”

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