First Nations adults with disabilities living on reserve lack equal access to services, report finds

Jennifer Bercier says “an invisible line with a huge barrier” separates Manitoba First Nations like hers from the rest of the province, after her daughter lost all of her disability support and services upon turning 18.

The mother from Opaskwayak Cree Nation says the disability services that her 20-year-old daughter, Kaylie, received under Jordan’s Principle — a federal policy which ensures First Nations kids can swiftly access essential products and services — ended on her 18th birthday.

“There are no transition services, so you face barriers again, even though your disability doesn’t leave you,” Bercier said at a Thursday news conference in Winnipeg.

Kaylie’s story is one of 32 that informed a new report released Thursday by the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba, which found First Nation adults with disabilities in Manitoba aren’t provided supports and services they need, particularly on-reserve.

The 117-page report, called Supporting the Gifts of First Nations Adults Living with Exceptionalities, makes 31 recommendations in several areas, including health care and social service systems, community infrastructure and resources, education, employment and caregiver support.

Bercier said for people like her daughter, who lives with an intellectual disability, there are no occupational therapists or respite services available in Opaskwayak.

Kaylie also does not have access to day programs or employment support services on the northern Manitoba First Nation, meaning Bercier or her husband will have to quit their job and stay home with their daughter once she ages out of school next June.

“She’s a bright young girl,” said Bercier. “She wants to be part of the community, but there’s nowhere for her to go.”

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Though all First Nations adults with disabilities in Manitoba are eligible to receive assistance through the provincially operated Community Living DisAbility Services program, those living on reserve are not, the report states.

Existing services for First Nations adults with disabilities living on reserve are “substantially underfunded, under-resourced and understaffed,” the report says, leaving their basic needs neglected and often forcing families to disconnect from their home communities.

‘We are Manitobans’: parent

Since the long-term care of First Nations in Manitoba is a shared responsibility between the provincial and federal governments, the report recommends funding for a First Nations-led approach to resolve jurisdictional issues around who pays for services for First Nations adults with disabilities.

“These recommendations are directed at the government of Canada,” Cathy Merrick, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said at the Thursday news conference.

First Nations people in Manitoba deserve care and supports that value their wellness, while addressing the root causes of the disparities they face, she says. That includes the effects of colonialism, intergenerational trauma and ongoing poverty.

The report is a step toward creating a world where First Nations adults with disabilities “can survive, thrive and lead fulfilling lives,” Merrick said.

“I expect that our treaty partner thoroughly examines these findings, and sincerely addresses the comprehensive needs of First Nations, to achieve and sustain genuine reconciliation.”

Another recommendation from the report calls for the creation of a program for First Nations adults akin to Jordan’s Principle, which only applies to minors.

Joni Wilson said a lack of disability support for her son, Aidan, forced her to move from Peguis First Nation to Winnipeg when he was younger — but Jordan’s Principle made it possible for them to move back.

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“However, we knew that once he turned 18, all services would end and we’d be right back to the same situation,” she said at the news conference.

Wilson’s family is behind one of two human rights complaints filed against the federal government in 2021 regarding gaps in services for First Nation adults with disabilities living on reserve that allege systemic discrimination.

“We are Manitobans, we are Canadians, and nowhere else would there ever be a denial of services for any other ethnic group,” she said. “This shouldn’t even be a thing in this day and age.”

‘Falling through the cracks’

Joëlle Pastora Sala of Winnipeg’s Public Interest Law Centre, which funded the report, says the other complaint was filed by a coalition of 25 families with similar experiences to Bercier’s and Wilson’s.

“Interestingly, Canada has not denied the allegations of discrimination, and it’s our understanding that the Canadian Human Rights Commission is continuing to consider the complaints,” she said, adding that an update to the complaints is expected in the next week.

Pastora Sala says the federal government needs to create services and programs for First Nations adults with disabilities that promote inclusion and cultural connectivity throughout their lives.

“We know that First Nations adults with disabilities are already falling through the cracks and living in the streets without any support and services,” she said.

“Overall, the report is clear: disability-related supports are not available in the community of choice for First Nation adults with disabilities in Manitoba, including in First Nation communities.”

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