New Blackfoot human rights complaint for disabled adults backed up by Manitoba claim

Wednesday, October 19th, 2022 3:24pm


Image Caption

From left to right: Legal counsel Joëlle Pastora Sala, Siksika Councillor Tracy McHugh and legal counsel Carly Fox.


“…do you stay home in your community without the programs and services or do you leave the reserve to get those essential needs? How is that an option? How is that a good option for any parent? Any guardian?” — Siksika Councillor Tracy McHugh
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Three southern Alberta Nations in the Blackfoot Confederacy are collecting data to back up the anecdotal evidence for a complaint that has been filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) charging the federal government with discriminating against adults with developmental disabilities living on reserve.

“I don’t have an exact number,” said legal counsel Carly Fox, Kainai member and partner in Fox Fraser Law in Calgary. “It is difficult to determine the amount because a lot of people haven’t had assessments done. We’re in that process, trying to figure out on our end how many people that the claim is covering.”

Fox says until that number is determined it will be difficult to put a dollar figure on the compensation requested, for both past grievances and future services. Siksika, Piikani and Kainai Nations collectively have about 25,000 members.

The claim aims to establish stable and equitable on-reserve funding for the creation of comprehensive and culturally appropriate programs, supports and services, as well as supports to transition from childhood to adulthood.

The claim also seeks individual compensation for “all victims of the discrimination described in the complaint.”

Fox says the decision was made to file the complaint with the CHRC on Aug. 31 because “mostly what my clients are doing with this complaint is that they’re hoping to be able to provide those services to their members right away.”

The complaint contends that through Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), the federal government has failed to fund and support the services necessary to enable “full participation in society” for Blackfoot Nations adults with developmental disabilities and this constitutes systemic discrimination.

Fox says many of her clients have applied for funding and have either been refused or received an amount well below the support provided through Alberta’s Persons with Developmental Disabilities program.

To get full support or to improve the quality of their lives, Blackfoot adults with disabilities have had to move off reserve leaving their families and their culture to access supports from the province instead of the federal government, says Fox.

While this has been an ongoing concern, Fox says the decision to take action came from a push made by Siksika Councillor Tracy McHugh, who was given the nod by Chief Ouray Crowfoot and council to get support from the Kainai and Piikani councils.

In a news conference last week, McHugh explained that at 14 years of age her sister had a horse-riding accident. It is now 30 years later.

“To date, she still doesn’t have access to proper funding for programs that would give her proper independence while living in her community,” said McHugh. “I think that option of do you stay home in your community without the programs and services or do you leave the reserve to get those essential needs? How is that an option? How is that a good option for any parent? Any guardian?”

McHugh and Siksika council spoke privately to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the issue, but to no avail, says Fox.

“So finally we decided it was time to do something about this. And I think it was the timing,” said Fox. “We wish we had done this sooner, but we have good case law now and the tribunal with Jordan’s Principle, so I think everything fit in well.”

In 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) implemented Jordan's Principle, which ensures all First Nations children living in Canada can access the products, services and supports they need when they need them.

Then in November 2021, the CHRT ordered Canada to fund the full cost of meeting the needs to support the delivery of Jordan’s Principle or child and family services to First Nations children, youth and families on-reserve.

While Fox says she can’t release the complaint that has gone to the CHRT she says the issues outlined are “very similar” to the issues outlined in other complaints that are before the CHRC right now.

In July 2021, the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) in Winnipeg filed three human rights complaints of ongoing systemic discrimination and failure to provide necessary supports and services to First Nations adults with disabilities in Manitoba. Two of the complaints were on behalf of individuals and one was on behalf of a coalition of First Nations adults with disabilities, discriminated against through the denials, delays and disruptions of services and supports by the federal government.

PILC legal counsel Joëlle Pastora Sala shared with the complaint filed on behalf of the coalition. It states that the federal government is not meeting the needs of the complainants as it fails to provide baseline disability-related needs, such as toileting, clinical assessments, and necessary equipment like wheelchairs; forces people to rely on their families for lifelong support; does not provide supports necessary to assist with transitions between life stages; does not offer culturally appropriate supports; does not enable people with disabilities to hold meaningful employment and volunteer work within their communities; and fails to “enable access to material wellbeing for all to allow First Nations adults with disabilities to meet their basic needs and not live in poverty.”

Since the initial filing, Sala said one complainant “passed away never having had access to the necessary supports.” 

Canada has responded to the allegations. Sala would not share that response saying she was unclear if it was public.

“We recently filed a response to Canada's reply to our clients' complaints. Interestingly, Canada (ISC) has not denied the allegations of discrimination nor have they provided any position on the coalition's complaint,” said Sala.

ISC spokesperson Vincent Gauthier would not offer any details on Canada’s response, saying in an email to that Canada was aware of the PILC complaint filed with the CHRC.

“We share the belief that First Nations with disabilities are entitled to the fair and equitable delivery of appropriate programs, services and supports to meet their needs,” said Gauthier.

The next step for the Manitoba complaint is for the commission to determine whether to move towards settlement negotiations.

“If settlement discussions fail, we move to a hearing,” said Sala.

The Blackfoot Confederacy complaint “may assist to…demonstrate the broad scope of the issues raised by our clients' complaint which go beyond the Manitoba borders,” said Sala.

“The Commission may want us to consider joining the complaints at a later stage but for now the Confederacy is a couple steps behind our process,” she added.

Fox believes the separate complaints can work together and strengthen each other. She agrees with Sala that the complaints may be heard together.

In an email response regarding the Blackfoot Nations’ action, Gauthier said the department was aware of the complaint, took the allegations “very seriously,” and “as details are received by the department, ISC will take the time to carefully review.”

He added, “Supporting the health and well-being of First Nations communities and individuals is a top priority for Indigenous Services Canada. We remain committed to working with all partners in addressing gaps and improving access to the supports and services that people need.”

Complaints are filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which then may refer cases to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.