Protection of Children

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. It is disturbing to learn about an unacceptable number of young people in Canada who are deprived of their full rights of childhood. The number of First Nations children today who are in the care of children’s aid societies now surpasses the number of children who, generations ago, were forced to live in residential schools. Think about it.

While growing numbers of Aboriginal children are in care, they still do not receive the care they deserve. They receive on average 22 per cent less for child protection services than non-Aboriginal children. Given the poverty, substance abuse and poor living conditions that we know to be the reality on many reserves, how can this be?

The Department of Indian Affairs is responsible for funding First Nations child protection on reserves. Why is this government not doing more, especially for Aboriginal children, those most in need?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government and Minister of State (Seniors)):Honourable senators, I thank the senator for the question. Obviously the standard of living and the state of some of the Aboriginal communities in the country is of great concern to our government, as it has been to all governments, including those that preceded us and particularly the provincial and territorial governments of the large communities. There is no easy answer to this question, of course, as we have said before.

The government has made progress on a number of important areas facing Aboriginal people. The Economic Action Plan, which was announced earlier this year, put an additional $100 million into skills and employment opportunities for Aboriginals. There was $75 million for the new Aboriginal Skills and Training Strategic Investment Fund. These and other programs relating to education and schooling, health care services, and many plans that the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development has already put in place, of course, are only small steps. This is a compelling and long-standing problem.

Honourable senators, there is no easy answer, but the government has made some significant changes, particularly in the area of new housing for people living in Aboriginal communities. As well, as honourable senators know, we have worked closely with the Aboriginal community to make the communities safer and healthier by improving water and sewage systems. These are programs that are under way and have some significant way to go to address the severity of the problem.

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, I thank the leader for her answer.

These small steps can turn into bigger steps as we address this issue.

Groups working on behalf of Aboriginal children have brought forward this issue to the federal Human Rights Commission. Hearings were set to begin last week when the newly-appointed chair suddenly adjourned the meetings until January.

Why were these meetings adjourned, and why do children have to wait even longer to have their needs addressed?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I was not aware that they had adjourned the meetings. The Human Rights Commission is an independent body of the government. I will have to take that question as notice. I have no knowledge of the reasons for the postponement, but I will certainly be happy to find out.

Senator Munson: I thank the leader for that. I have a further supplementary question.

In her report, Auditor General Sheila Fraser outlined that the federal funding of child protection services on reserves is inadequate and is also less than what non-Aboriginal children receive.

In looking at it, it seems that there are two standards for children; one for Aboriginal children and one for non-Aboriginal children. Will the leader comment on this?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, there is a significant amount of money invested in the various issues pertaining to our Aboriginal community and, as I mentioned, we are expending considerable sums of money in education, training, adult training, housing, and safer communities with regard to health. I happen to have been in Iqaluit this past summer and there was an extremely aggressive house building program under way. I was there a year earlier and was amazed at the progress made in one year.

Honourable senators, the problems faced by many in our Aboriginal communities are complex and troublesome. The various actions of our government, from the residential school apology through to the money we have expended on housing, education and skills training, and health services, are all good and positive steps in the right direction. However, no one would argue the fact that there is significantly more that needs to be done.



Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. This week marks the twentieth anniversary of National Child Day, a day that commemorates the unanimous adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989. Canada ratified that convention in December 1991, but we have not seen a significant amount of action since then.

In 2007, UNICEF gave Canada a ranking of 12 out of 21 countries regarding the well-being of our children. The situation of Aboriginal children is particularly tragic; they are twice as likely to live in poverty, twice as likely to commit suicide, three times as likely to drop out of school, and three times as likely to die in infancy.

These are really tough statistics to recite in this chamber. What is the government doing to change them?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government and Minister of State (Seniors)): The honourable senator did note that the initiative was started by a previous Conservative government. As a matter of fact, the person named as the co-chair of that special initiative by the previous Conservative government was the honourable senator’s former colleague, Senator Landon Pearson.

The situation with regard to the rights of the child, child poverty and, particularly, the circumstances in our Aboriginal communities, as Senator Munson mentioned, are difficult. This is an area that requires constant work and it is the desire of any government of whatever political stripe to do whatever they can to alleviate the conditions for people, and especially children, who live in poverty.

As a government, we have taken several measures to assist low-income families with various tax measures, such as the Working Income Tax Benefit and the National Child Benefit. We have extended Employment Insurance benefits to assist families and, in assisting families, we assist their children. We are providing predictable and increased funding to the provinces to deal with the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer. Not only are we increasing the funding, but we have committed to a 6 per cent increase to the CHT, year after year.

With regard to the young people living in the North, on reservations and in our Aboriginal communities, as the honourable senator knows, we have embarked on an aggressive program of building new schools and making major renovations to other schools. We have created new programs to help vastly improve the whole situation with regard to education on First Nations reserves and in the North.

Senator Munson: I thank Senator LeBreton for her answer. This is the kind of issue with which I am reticent to play politics, especially when it deals with the children of our nation and, in particular, Aboriginal children. I watched this morning in our Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology how, as senators, we work together to come to common ground in the report on cities and poverty that will come out soon.

Over the last three or four years on the Human Rights Committee, I have watched the work we tried to do with regard to the rights of the child. It is interesting to go across the country and listen to many of these stories, and then deliver our report. Sometimes there is action from governments, no matter whether they are Conservative or Liberal, and sometimes there is not. They take a look at it. Bureaucrats look at it. Ministers are busy and they may look at it. An answer is written. It comes back to us and it just stays within the precincts of Parliament. Not very much change.

However, there is one part of our Human Rights Committee report, which I worked on with Senator Andreychuk and others. We keep pushing for us to take another step. It makes sense in this country to appoint a national children’s commissioner as is happening in the United Kingdom. That was recommended by our committee. Then we got the fuzzy lines when we came back.

There is an opportunity for this government to stand up for children, and to appoint a national children’s commissioner.

What does the Leader of the Government in the Senate think?

Senator LeBreton: I have been a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, as well, and participated in many of these studies, many of which the government has taken action on. For instance, the recommendations of the Social Affairs Committee on having a mental health commissioner was one item the government followed up on.

With regard to children, I think it is unfair of Senator Munson to suggest that governments read these reports and then file them away. The children are citizens of the country. Their issues fall within many jurisdictions of the government: Health, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, HRSDC, et cetera. I do not have a written card response; this is me speaking.

It is difficult to have a fixed answer that one can put in a three-minute sound bite about everything the government has done to support families and children, and to raise the quality of life for families in this country and, by extension, children. This issue involves the whole of government.

Honourable senators, it is incorrect to state that no action has been taken in these areas. I mentioned a few examples in my first answer to the honourable senator. Of course, we are in difficult economic times. We see an increased incidence of people accessing food banks. I think all of us applaud the work that community service organizations and individuals — and the front-line workers in these food banks — accomplish in support of families that need extra help at this point in time.

I believe, honourable senators, that the government, through the various departments, through the tax measures we have taken and through increased funding to the provinces, has stable, increased funding, unlike what happened before. Everyone is in a better position to deal with these emerging issues.

With regard to the recommendation of the committee, I am aware of that recommendation, but I am not prepared to comment on it at this point in time. The government responded to a past report and the response is there for all to see. I cannot, and will not, comment further on that particular point.

Senator Munson: I have a supplementary question. The numbers we have seen in the last week with regard to the increase in accessing food banks tell a story. I am not here to criticize. I have accepted some of the arguments that the leader makes about doing more; however, I think the leader must accept that when we see the figures on accessing food banks, it tells us that collectively we have not done enough for the children in this country.

Therefore, in her heart, will the leader recommend a national children’s commissioner to her cabinet colleagues? Does she believe in the concept of a national children’s commissioner? That recommendation would be an excellent start.

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I am a member of the cabinet and a member of a government. That question is a neat trick question that I will not take the bait on.

We are in difficult economic times. All good citizens, and all of us, I am sure, give money to shelters and food banks and donate food to help people through this difficult time.

However, one hallmark of this government is supporting families. Many measures have been taken to support families, and families include children. That is why the government has taken so many measures in support of families, not only tax measures but also, under Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, job-sharing, retraining and increasing the amount of money we send to the provinces under the Canada Health and Social Transfers and also for education. Particularly with Aboriginal children, significant resources are being expended on improving facilities, building proper homes and providing clean drinking water. The government is taking a host of measures to improve the lives of families and, by extension, the children of those families.