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Ottawa continues to fail Indigenous children

At St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, just across the street from the Supreme Court of Canada, there is a small display paying tribute to Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, an underappreciated legend of Canadian public health.

In 1907, when he was chief medical officer for the federal government, Dr. Bryce penned the Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, a scathing critique of residential schools.

He found, for example, that one in four students died within a year of enrolment, and the death rate was a staggering 48 per cent after three years.

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André Picard: To improve Indigenous health, change expectations

Almost all the deaths were because of tuberculosis, a disease that spreads readily in schools' crowded classrooms and dormitories, especially because the children were malnourished and sickly.

Dr. Bryce called the state of the schools a "national crime" and demanded "equitable health care to Indians," a plea that was ignored by government.

Dr. Bryce's exposé is important and rightfully honoured today, because it puts the lie to the common excuse that governments didn't know how bad conditions were in residential schools and can't be judged in retrospect.

Between 1870 and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were shipped off to residential schools as the centrepiece of a policy of "aggressive assimilation" of Indigenous peoples. A more accurate description is state-sanctioned cultural genocide.

Somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 children sent to residential schools died, and many more were victims of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

The number of deaths is unclear because one of the responses to Dr. Bryce's report was to stop cataloging deaths. (He was also pushed out of the civil service for his uncompromising truth telling.) At many of the 130 institutions that operated, children were dumped into unmarked graves.

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Flash forward to today: One hundred and ten years after the Bryce Report, we still don't have "equitable health care for Indians," and we still have a disturbing level of excuse-making and willful blindness on the part of government and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.

Many health and social-welfare programs for Indigenous children still receive funding that is about one-third less than for non-Indigenous children, an injustice that Dr. Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS), has fought tirelessly to correct.

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal acted on a complaint from FNCFCS and ruled that 165,000 First Nations children are victims of willful and reckless discrimination by the federal government, and ordered Ottawa to implement Jordan's Principle.

(Named after a severely disabled five-year-old First Nations boy who died while the federal and provincial government bickered over who should pay for the medical costs of moving him to foster care, it holds that children should get equal access to care whether they live on or off reserve and the "government of first contact" should foot the bill.)

Yet Ottawa has not fully respected the ruling, despite three non-compliance orders, the most recent just last week.

More money has been allocated to Indigenous children's health, but the government continues to insist that Jordan's Principle applies only to children with disabilities and those living on reserve. And it has spent $707,000 in legal fees fighting the tribunal ruling.

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There is still way too much red tape and foot-dragging from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), and too much excuse-making on the part of government. The tribunal said the indifferent bureaucracy was even to blame for suicide deaths in a community that has sought funding for mental-health programs.

The blunt reality is that, despite some progress, Indigenous children are still being denied care and services in a discriminatory fashion. The way the rules are being implemented also makes it more likely that Indigenous children will end up in foster care.

Let's not forget that there are three times as many Indigenous children in foster care today as there were First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in residential schools at their peak.

Despite the official apologies, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, despite the compensation, the federal government still clings to a double standard, a tacit endorsement of racial discrimination.

It's time we heeded the calls of principled champions of children's health, from Dr. Bryce to Dr. Blackstock, who forcefully remind us that justice and human rights cannot be dispensed selectively or with an eye-dropper.

Video: Trudeau says Pope Francis is open to working with Canada on reconciliation (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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