National First Nations group applauds Labrador Innu groups' human rights complaint

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A First Nations advocate who led a landmark court challenge against Ottawa is applauding Labrador's Innu groups for filing a complaint against the federal government with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The Sheshatshiu Innu Nation in central Labrador and the Mushuau Innu First Nation in the north coast town of Natuashish say federal funding for their two schools is inadequate and discriminatory. They filed a human rights complaint on June 14 alleging the funding gaps put Innu children at a disadvantage compared to students who attend provincially funded schools.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in Ottawa, said her organization stands with the Labrador groups. She said their rights complaint is necessary, and she thinks it has a good chance of success.

"They're not alone," Blackstock said in an interview Monday. "I know there are thousands of schoolchildren across this country that are going to be standing with them, too. Because this type of inequality is not just experienced by their nation, it's experienced by many First Nations children and students all over the country."

Blackstock and her organization filed a human rights complaint in 2007 alleging the child welfare system was discriminatory and inequitable toward First Nations children. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed and ordered the federal government to overhaul the system. A subsequent ruling determined Ottawa will also have to compensate those affected by the system.

"If you look at our case ... no one ever thought it would go anywhere," Blackstock said when asked if she thought the Labrador First Nations' could have an impact.

The Innu groups say the federal government, which is responsible for financing schools on First Nations territories, uses a financing model based heavily on provincial averages informed by urban populations. That model doesn't account for the high costs of service delivery in remote areas or the added costs of delivering specialized programs tailored to Innu students, a news release from the two groups said.

The two Innu nations have their own school board, called the Mamu Tshishkutamashutau Innu Education board. The board oversees their two schools — one in Sheshatshiu and one in the fly-in community of Natuashish.

A spokesperson for the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation said Monday the board receives about $22 million a year for those schools, but at least $28 million is needed just for operational and administrative costs.

Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart says the students get instruction in the Innu-aimun language, and they spend time on the land as part of the curriculum.

"You don't want to lose that identity, right?" Hart said in an interview Monday. "They speak Innu as a first language and it's important to keep that going."

He said the schools need resources to attract capable teachers and pay them a salary that will encourage them to stay.

Blackstock said there is plenty of evidence showing Ottawa underfunds First Nations schools. For example, a 2016 report from the parliamentary budget office estimated the federal government would have to boost spending by up to $665 million to provide on-reserve students with educations comparable to those they would get elsewhere.

"I think there's a good chance of success in this case, because the evidence really supports the First Nations' view," she said about the Innu nations' challenge. "I also think it's necessary because kids only get one childhood, but they can't wait decades and centuries for Canada to get its act together and do something."

The federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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