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Philpott vows to settle school bus dispute, but First Nations critics skeptical

By Kristy Kirkup

THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA -Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says the Liberal government expects to reach a settlement in the “near future” with a First Nations family that’s been battling the federal government to pay for school bus service for a child with cerebral palsy.

Philpott called it “unconscionable” that the family been fighting for more than a decade to get bus access for 15-year-old Noah Buffalo-Jackson, who goes to school in the Alberta city of Wetaskiwin, about 35 minutes from his community of Montana First

Nation.

“The family should have received these services and should not have had to fight for over a decade to have this resolved,” the minister said in a statement. “It is our intention to have a settlement reached in the very near future.”

Noah’s mother, Carolyn Buffalo, said Wednesday she has been waging her battle since her son was in kindergarten, calling the lack of service a considerable financial and emotional burden for her family.

“All I ever wanted was for him to be able to ride a bus like any other child,” she said. “The government flat out told me they wouldn’t provide extra funding for Noah, for any handicap kid.”

Buffalo broke into tears when she learned of Philpott’s comments, “I am just choked up,” she said, although she acknowledged it’s far too early to declare victory.

Many First Nations parents and caregivers have had to face the impossible decision of placing children into the foster system simply because they were unable to access services on reserve, she said.

“We’ve had doors slammed in our faces, over and over and over again.”

Anne Levesque, Buffalo’s Ottawa-based lawyer, said she has not received official word of any settlement plans and that the discrimination against her client is ongoing.

 

The case has been the subject of a human rights complaint since 2013. Earlier this year, it was turned over to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for adjudication.

 

A mediation session was arranged for two days this week with the Buffalo family and a **>First Nations<** elder, but the lawyer handling the file for the government had conveyed in “no uncertain terms”

she planned to come to the session “without the intention to settle,” Levesque said.

 

“Taking part in this two-day discussion … not aimed at resolving this complaint would be further discriminatory conduct for my client, so we declined to participate.”

 

Buffalo said she has always been willing to try mediation, but was never convinced the government would negotiate in good faith.

 

“The government has not been … sincere,” she said. “They’ve been really awful to us.”

 

**>First Nations<** child advocate Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the **>First Nations<** Child and Family Caring Society, echoed Levesque’s skepticism, saying she won’t believe a settlement is in the works until she sees proof.

 

“This mom has been struggling with Canada to get basic transportation services for her special needs son for 11 years and she, in frustration, filed a human rights complaint in 2013,”

Blackstock said.

 

In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found Ottawa was discriminating against **>First Nations<** children by failing to provide the same level of services that exist elsewhere.

 

“We had all hoped they would settle (Buffalo’s) case ASAP, but they still haven’t and she’s still continuing to struggle,”

Blackstock said.

 

“I think it shows the burden on families that continues to exist just to access services that they are now just entitled to as a matter of public policy, but they’re entitled to as a matter of law.”

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