HALIFAX--Thirty people joined in a circle at Halifax's Grand Parade Grounds this morning to offer song and words of support for Pictou Landing First Nation mother Maurina Beadle and Pictou Landing Health Director Philippa Pictou, who were today being cross-examined by defence lawyers for the government of Canada.
"While the government sits on $11 million, families across Canada are fighting to access that funding," said Pictou, addressing those gathered. That funding has been allocated to prevent interruptions or delays in health care services for First Nations children in the case of changes in their medical situations. Beadle and Pictou's fight for access to that $11 million brought Pictou and Beadle to the point of suing the federal government for access to it.
Health Canada set up the fund in response to Jordan's Principle, a child-first policy that passed unanimously in 2007 in the House of Commons. The bill is named for Jordan River Anderson, a Norway House Cree child who lived all four years of his life in hospital in Manitoba because the provincial and federal governments could not agree on which level of government should foot the bill for critical home-care services that would have allowed him to be cared for at home.
Jordan's Principle says the needs of the child are paramount, and that critical health care services are to be provided by the government first contacted; the governments in question can fight later about who pays. The policy has yet to be implemented in any province or territory.
"As long as the government denies that there is a jurisdictional issue [for First Nations children receiving health services], that money will never be available to families who the fund was created for," said Pictou.
Pictou discovered one such jurisdictional issue when she initiated a request, through Jordan's Principle, for funding for Beadle's 16-year-old son Jeremy, who lives with complex disabilities in Pictou Landing First Nation. Single-handedly, Beadle had been caring for Jeremy his whole life. But last May, she suffered a double stroke, which left her in a wheelchair and physically unable to perform the myriad of tasks involved in caring for her son, who requires 24-hour monitoring.
Pictou's research revealed a gap between health care available for First Nations people with disabilities--whose health services are provided by the federal government--and those available to off-reserve people with disabilities--whose health services are provided by the province. Where under a Nova Scotia Community Services policy Jeremy and Maurina Beadle would be eligible for extra funding because of the family's exceptionally vulnerable financial position, as status-Indians, they are not eligible for the extra funding. Jeremy would have to be moved to an institution. According to Community Services, no institition in Nova Scotia can meet his medical and monitoring needs, so he would have to be institutionalized in New Brunswick.
On top of that, after the Beadles were denied additional funding to the $2,200 respite (home-care) cap, a 34-year-old non-status Nova Scotian with autism was granted home-care funding above $2,200. In spearheading the lawsuit against the Government of Canada for this inequality, Beadle and Pictou are using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality of rights (and services) to all Canadians; and theirs is the first case in Canada to cite Jordan's Principle in demanding equal health services.
"It takes immense strength to take on the government of this country," said Cindy Blackstock, addressing the circle. Blackstock, who is the director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and who has long advocated for the rights of First Nations children, flew from Ottawa to be present for Pictou's and Beadle's cross-examinations in Halifax. ("Of course I came!" she said, walking with Beadle after the rally. "This is the most important thing!")
"More kids are scooped now than they were in the day of residential schools--more kids are in government care today," said Billy Lewis, Halifax Mi'kmaq elder, at the rally.
The removal of First Nations children from their families is part of Canada's history, but it is also part of Canada's present. Nationally, 30 per cent of children in foster care are Aboriginal, even though First Nations make up 3.8 per cent of Canada’s population.
The reasons for this--rooted, said Pictou in an interview this summer, in the notion that governments can do better than First Nations at caring for children--are insidious: provinces can receive funding from the federal government for First Nations children in institutions. A class action lawsuit out of British Columbia was recently launched against the federal government for signing over responsibility for First Nations children to the province during the "Sixties Scoop." The province received federal funding for each status-Indian child put in foster care, and subsequently split up families even when faced with alternatives such as living with grandparents and keeping siblings together. It is believed that between 1962 and 1996 16,000 people were "scooped" from their families and communities.
Blackstock, in her book Residential Schools: Did They Really Close or Just Morph Into Child Welfare?, wrote, “First Nations children were not being removed [from their homes] because their families are putting them at greater risk, but rather because their families are at greater risk due to social exclusion, poverty and poor housing. Investments in equitable child welfare services, with an emphasis on bolstering funding for family support services to keep children safely at home…hold the most promise in redressing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care.”
Catherine Martin, who worked with Jordan River Anderson, also attended the rally. She described the "incredible suffering" Jordan endured in hospital "while he could have received care from his mom and his community." This contrasts dramatically with the Jeremy's home situation, where Beadle has been a constant presence in his life.*
The love of a mother, said Martin, "is such a simple, inexpensive way to care for our children."
The rally ended with the Song for Grandmothers, and Beadle and Pictou were smudged before heading back to the courtroom, where Pictou is being cross-examined this afternoon.
"This is a long battle, and I think we're going to win," said Beadle. "When I stepped into this case, I said, there's no way I can step my foot back out again. And everyone's support is the most wonderful thing that can happen."
Pictou, likewise, is optimistic, and notes the crucial nature of Jeremy and Maurina's case. "If we win, we'll open [the funding] up for families across the country."
*For more about Jeremy and Maurina Beadle, see "It's a Matter of Jordan's Principle," published yesterday in The Dominion.
Photographs by Moira Peters.