A landmark human rights case launched by a St. Theresa Point man finally has the go-ahead and could transform the way Ottawa funds services for disabled people on reserves.
Kevin Taylor, whose cerebral palsy means he has limited verbal skills and can only walk with the use of crutches, filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2010, alleging the disparity in services for the disabled on and off reserve amounts to discrimination.
After four years of delays and disputes over jurisdiction, Taylor, 32, got word this week the commission has found merit in his complaint and has referred it to a tribunal for a public hearing.
'That's what I'm worried about, what will happen to him when I'm gone. I want him to be part of his community'
"It was happy New Year's news," said Alice Taylor, Kevin's mother and chief advocate. "It was long and frustrating and it gets you on edge sometimes."
If the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rules in Taylor's favour, his case could force the federal government to fund some services on reserve that are already available to disabled people in Winnipeg and other northern, non-reserve communities. That includes vocational training, speech therapy, physical therapy, respite services and independent-living options.
Taylor's case comes on the heels of a similar hearing that's before the tribunal, dealing with child welfare funding, which is much lower on reserves even though provincial child welfare rules and policies still apply. The child welfare case, launched in 2007 by the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, has also been plagued by appeals launched by the federal government, often over whether the human rights commission has jurisdiction to deal with the matter.
The same jurisdictional delays also stalled Taylor's case, and a Federal Court appeal could delay it again. Health Canada and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada can ask for a judicial review of the commission's decision to order a full tribunal hearing. The appeal must be filed this month in Federal Court, and could derail any chance the tribunal will hold hearings this year.
"Our hope is the federal government accepts the commission's decision," said Beverly Froese, the Taylors' lawyer with Legal Aid Manitoba's Public Interest Law Centre. "It's been a long time, and it should go to the tribunal.
A spokesman for Health Canada said the federal government could not comment on matters potentially before the courts.
Alice Taylor hopes some of the human rights tribunal's hearings can take place in St. Theresa Point. She estimates there are 100 people on the reserve with special needs and 10 who are severely disabled like her son. Hearings on the reserve would also spark interest from other First Nations around Island Lake such as Wasagamack and Garden Hill, which also have a significant shortage of services such as home care, educational and vocational training, occupational therapy and even the chance to live independently in a group home.
"That's what I'm worried about, what will happen to him when I'm gone," said Alice, who has struggled with kidney cancer this year and hopes her son can eventually live in a supportive-living group home.
"I want him to be part of his community and not have to go to the city. I'm really crossing my fingers."
Life for the Taylors got a little easier last year when the family finally got indoor plumbing. Their small bungalow was among the 360 homes in St. Theresa Point without indoor toilets and clean running water, which meant Taylor either had to walk his way slowly to the outhouse using his crutches or use the slop pail that served as an indoor toilet.
Taylor's only service is a weekly bath at the nursing station. The family now has a proper bathtub, but it's not equipped with the right handles and bars to help Taylor get in, and he relishes his weekly trips to the nursing station since that's one of the few times he gets out of the house.
Alice Taylor says her son loves chopping wood, word searches and computer games. He has potential that could be explored with the help of trained staff, including speech therapists and vocational experts.