Jordan’s Principle: Health Care for Indigenous Children


On the first day of our trip to the south we listened to CBC radio, as we usually do. We heard Cindy Blackstock talking about Jordan’s Principle.

Jordan River Anderson was a young indigenous boy from the Norway House Cree Nation who suffered from Carey Fineman Ziter syndrome, a rare muscular disorder. As a result of his illness he required years of treatment in a Winnipeg Hospital. He spent the first two years of his life in a hospital.

If you have ever been in a hospital you know you want to be there if you are very sick, but the shorter your stay the better. It is a horrible place to live. After 2 years in the hospital his physicians agreed that he could live in a family home near the hospital in Winnipeg.

Had Jordan been white, it is likely that none of this would have been a problem and Manitoba Health would probably have covered him. Unfortunately, the federal and Manitoba wrangled about who would pay. Manitoba took the position that as an aboriginal child the federal government was responsible. The federal government was not so sure. For more than 2 years the two governments fought over who would be responsible for his considerable medical bills. During that additional 2 years Jordan continued to live in the hospital. In fact he actually never got to live in a family home, because he died at the age of 5 before that ever happened. It was a case of horrendous abuse perpetrated by the two levels of government. It was a dark day for Canada and Manitoba when he died.

It is true that in Canada there is some ambiguity about which level of government is responsible for government services for First Nations children even when those services are ordinarily available to other children living off reserve. As a result it is common for the governments to wrangle over the bills while the services to the children are delayed. Often the services are denied until the dispute is resolved.


According to Jordan’s principle, that was agreed to by the federal and provincial governments after the bad publicity as a result of the case of Jordan River Anderson, the governmental agency that is first contacted will pay, without delay or disruption and then if the government that paid feels the other government ought to have paid, it can refer the dispute to an impartial dispute authority for binding resolution if the two governments cannot agree which should pay. The idea was to help the children immediately and let the governments work it out later. This was a great idea. Jordan’s principle was unanimously adopted by the House of Commons of Canada on December 12, 2007

Sadly according, to Cindy Blackstock, an indigenous activist, the government had interpreted the principle so narrowly that hardly any children get to benefit from it and the stark injustice continues.  As a result she helped First Nations file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (‘CHRT’) and independent adjudicative body. In January 2016 the CHRT held in favor of the First Nations complainants and found that the Government of Canada improperly implemented the principle which Parliament had unanimously adopted. As a result according to CHRT Canada discriminated again First Nations Children  and youth on the basis of race and ethnic origin contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also ordered the government to stop applying that principle in a discriminatory manner and to apply the principle fully.

Since that ruling in 2016 nearly 4 years ago, the CHRT has issued 7 non-compliance orders against Canada for failing to abide by its rulings. The 3rd of its non-compliance orders was issued by the CHRT in May of 2017 after the it had found that Canada continued to repeat is pattern of conduct and narrow focus with respect to Jordan’s principle. At the same time the CHRT issued 22 additional orders. The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau says it agrees with the decision but want to think carefully about how it implements the rule. That sounds sensible, but in the meantime Indigenous children continue to be discriminated against.


As part of a much broader claim against the federal Government by Indigenous children, in September 2019, the CHRT issued a ruling related to compensation. It ruled that the federal government should pay $40,000 to each child who was in child and family services care on reserve at any point from Jan. 1, 2006, to a date to be determined by the tribunal. It even included payment to some of the parents and grand children of the children involved. That amount is the maximum allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In other words, the tribunal might have awarded even more if it had the authority to do so. Clearly, the CHRT saw the conduct of the Canadian government as egregious.

It is arguable about whether or not such a cash award is the right way to solve such a problem. After all it may seem like throwing money at a problem.  Yet it shows how serious the problem is and how badly the Canadian government is failing indigenous children, thus continuing a pattern of neglect and abuse that is more than a century old. It is time for a change. Indigenous children should be treated equally with non-indigenous children whether they live on or off-reserve.  Anything less is a disgrace. And they should not have to wait until the federal government is ready to do what it has been ordered to do.

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