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Proposed class action suit alleges 'discriminatory' underfunding of child-welfare system in northern Quebec

This file photo shows a toddler rocking on a playground in Hamburg, Germany, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/dpa via AP, Daniel Reinhardt) This file photo shows a toddler rocking on a playground in Hamburg, Germany, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/dpa via AP, Daniel Reinhardt)
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Two Inuit women who went through the Indigenous foster care system have filed a proposed class action lawsuit against the Quebec and Canadian governments for allegedly discriminating against Inuit youth and families by under-funding child welfare services.

Lucy Tookalook and Tanya Jones, residents of Nunavik in northern Quebec, launched the proposed lawsuit on Tuesday in Superior Court in Montreal.

Both were taken from their mothers at a very young age -- Tookalook at birth and Jones at five – and placed into the Nunavik foster system, during which they alleged they were sexually and physically abused.

The pair say they turned to drugs and alcohol while underage to cope with their trauma.

“I was taken from my mother when I was born and sent thousands of miles away as a newborn to a hospital in Montreal. I was there for seven months, alone and with no support. I was then returned to Nunavik to a system that utterly abandoned me and other Inuit children in the face of heartless neglect and abuse,” Tookalook alleged in a press release.

None of the allegations in the application have been tested or proven in court.

The suit, which has not yet been authorized, is demanding anywhere between $40,000 to $300,000 per class member, depending on the extent of the alleged damages suffered.

The application filed with the court claims both the province and the country, which have shared responsibility for the northern Quebec region of Nunavik since 1975, failed to provide prevention and protection services equal to what is given to youth elsewhere in Canada.

“This discriminatory treatment is rooted in the apathy and racism that the respondents have historically exhibited towards the Inuit in Nunavik,” the application alleged.

Indigenous people account for 90 per cent of Nunavik’s population, according to the 2016 census, with just over 18 per cent of Canada’s Inuit population living in the region.

There have long been complaints surrounding Nunavik’s child welfare system. The application cites a searing Human Rights Commission report published in 2007 cataloguing staff shortages, a lack of funding for health centres, and inadequate investigation into reports of abuse.

In 2019, the commission sent a letter to Quebec authorities insisting that many of these issues had persisted despite calls for action.

The attorneys general of Quebec and Canada are named as the two defendants in the application, both of whom have not responded to a request for comment from CTV News on Wednesday.

PREVENTION AND PROTECTION

According to Mohsen Seddigh, one of the lawyers for the women seeking the proposed suit, the under-funding of prevention services in Nunavik can result in the over-representation of Indigenous children within the foster system, as is the case in many remote Indigenous communities.

“Some cases it may be the parents are dealing with their own trauma and issues […] because of their own circumstances as children,” he said in an interview.

Prevention services, he explained, exist to provide these parents with support so “the child can stay within the family.”

Without this form of preventative intervention, children are frequently placed in state care as a protective measure.

“What ends up typically happening is, is children are removed from their homes, where efforts have not been made for them to be able to stay at home in the family unit, and benefit from being with their families,” he said.

But Seddigh said that in Nunavik’s case, protective services are also under-used in appropriate situations.

In its 2007 report, the Human Rights Commission found that some Nunavik children were not relocated from their homes after reports of abuse.

“Some children who were flagged as being exposed to abuse, they would take the child to a doctor,” said Seddigh. “Unless the doctor saw signs of physical injury, the child would be sent back to the abuser.”

In addition to under-financed child welfare services, the lawsuit application alleges discriminatory under-funding of other resources in Nunavik such as medical care and mental health services.

“If a child is dealing with trauma and mental health issues […] normally there are certain suicide-prevention and other mental well-being services that are provided,” Seddigh said. “But if those services are not available, then those individuals do not get the support that they need.”

CULTURAL FACTORS

The lawsuit application also alleged the Quebec and Canadian governments of “failing to adjust funding of child-welfare services to account for the unique circumstances of the Inuit in Nunavik.”

Seddigh told CTV these circumstances can include intergenerational trauma and the remote nature of life in Nunavik.

“[The government] simply perpetuated the intergenerational trauma by providing inadequate services, and, as a result, more and more generations of children having to go through the same system,” he alleged.

Jones said she’s taking action for her “people who have been treated as less than human for decades.”

“I want Inuit children in Nunavik to have their day in court. I want their pain and suffering to be heard, felt and repaired,” she said.

The application cites a 2019 public inquiry into relations between Indigenous peoples and public services in Quebec, which found children were frequently placed into non-Indigenous foster homes where their culture was no longer preserved, and that youth protection evaluations were not made with certain historical and cultural factors in mind.

“The focus should be, under the law, on substantive equality,” said Seddigh.

“Sometimes, giving the same thing or the same level of service to everybody means that you’re effectively differentiating between those people who are discriminated against.”

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