By Mia Rabson
OTTAWA — A human rights case affecting Ottawa’s funding for aboriginal child welfare services is inching closer to a hearing as lawyers for both sides argued pre-hearing motions Tuesday.
The claim was brought in 2007 by the First Nations Family Caring Society, alleging First Nations children were routinely discriminated against by the federal government with chronic underfunding of child welfare services on reserves.
The case has been in legal limbo for years as the federal government has repeatedly attempted to prevent the claim from being heard in court and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the complaint before hearings were held.
Last April, a federal judge ordered the case to be heard.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the parties involved were in front of the three-member tribunal panel arguing about potential witnesses and looking for a date to begin the full hearings.
Laywers for the government argued the expert witness on residential schools shouldn’t be allowed to testify because it is highly prejudicial to the government and will be a distraction from the contemporary situation of child welfare on reserves. The government argued three of the other expert witnesses proposed by the Caring Society should also be excluded because they worked with the Caring Society on a report on child welfare, which suggests they are biased.
Society executive director Cindy Blackstock said excluding the expert witness is ridiculous because residential schools show the federal government has a decades-old history of underfunding aboriginal kids’ needs. She said excluding the other witnesses because they worked with the Caring Society on another report doesn’t make sense because the government not only paid for their services and the entire report, it has professed to use its findings in its own policy development.
Blackstock said if those witnesses are biased now, why were they not biased when Ottawa was funding their research?
"Why is Canada once again spending time trying to avoid this hearing and exclude any evidence that will help the tribunal decide what is in in the best interest of the children," said Blackstock. "I have yet to see one submission from Canada that is about the best interest of children. They’re all based on what’s fair to the Government of Canada."
The tribunal reserved its decision on the witness issue. It is expected to set dates for the full hearings on Wednesday.
Manitoba has one of the highest rates of aboriginal children in care, with more than 70 per cent of all foster kids in Manitoba being aboriginal. First Nations advocates argue federal underfunding forces social workers to simply take kids from their parents without having the time or resources to work with families in crisis.