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MMIW report coins phrase ‘interjurisdictional neglect’ to describe how social services fail Indigenous people

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Commissioners prepare to handover the final report during the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Quebec, June 3, 2019. Only for lack of a better term did Tina Fontaine “fall through the cracks.” The report following the investigation into […]


Commissioners prepare to handover the final report during the closing ceremony of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Gatineau, Quebec, June 3, 2019.

Only for lack of a better term did Tina Fontaine “fall through the cracks.” The report following the investigation into her death in 2014 said “hundreds of children and youth are falling through the cracks of our society’s social safety net, just like Tina.” But the metaphor failed to capture the systematic scope of the cracks through which she fell.

A new term was coined Monday, defined in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It introduces a neologism for situations in which people are failed — by healthcare systems, police forces and child and family services — because provinces, territories and other jurisdictions do not work together. The commissioners call this problem “interjurisdictional neglect.”

“That’s a very good term for it,” says Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. “A ‘crack’ implies that it’s like a small issue,” says Richter. “A ‘crack’ or an ‘accident’ is like not having dairy-free cream at a coffee shop.”

Safe drinking water, affordable housing and health care for Indigenous communities are administered by a patchwork of policies across jurisdictions, which have overlapping responsibilities.

“In many cases, this overlapping has resulted in the direct denial of services that could have saved lives,” the report reads.

In one example given in the report, from the testimony of an Ontario Provincial Police inspector, a person who is trafficked might travel through the jurisdictions of the Ontario Provincial Police and several municipal police forces, which need to share information during the investigation — “so, you can imagine how this can become challenging to ensure that police get this right.”

Reports since the 1990s have already showed which services are needed in Indigenous communities; 19 reports have addressed healthcare; 17 reports have addressed safe housing, and 11 reports have addressed education, the MMIWG report reads.

But these services lack continuity between jurisdictions, a problem that penetrates other parts of Canadian society through trade disputes between provinces, transportation obstacles across the country and communication about national security.

“There’s a moral imperative that we have to share information properly,” says Ottawa lawyer Jacques Shore. He served as counsel for families of victims in the federal inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing, which urged government agencies across jurisdictions to better share security information.

“Ultimately what we’re looking at is a system that is more of a tapestry made of threads, rather than a mosaic that is basically separated by grout,” Shore says.

Jurisdictional disputes have costed lives before Fontaine’s. In 2005, a child named Jordan River Anderson died in Manitoba while the federal and provincial government was debating who should pay for his home care. It led the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to establish Jordan’s Principle, which mandates that, for First Nations children, the government of first contact must provide the service they need — and decide who pays for it later.

Raelene Vickers, director of the Mokami Status of Women Council in Labrador, says a similar principle should also apply to Indigenous adults escaping violence or seeking addiction treatment. She says the term, “falling through the cracks” places the blame on the person for falling through them.

“I think the term ‘interjurisdictional’ adds more seriousness to the issue,” Vickers says. “I would call it neglect.”

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