OTTAWA — National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations says provincial governments that want to cling to their authority over child welfare are one of the biggest barriers to implementing new legislation giving Indigenous communities control over their children’s well-being.
Bellegarde and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller signed what they called a “protocol agreement” in Ottawa Tuesday that is the next step in implementing Bill C-92. That bill, which passed last year and took effect on Jan. 1, recognizes the inherent right Indigenous communities have to oversee child-welfare services.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges is getting the premiers and the territorial governments to accept that there is a jurisdiction that needs to be respected,” he said.
It’s partly a response to a long history of off-reserve authorities removing Indigenous children from their communities in the name of protecting them.
Under the bill, Indigenous organizations and governments can develop their own child-welfare laws and programs, in agreements reached with the federal government. Tuesday’s document outlines how some of those discussions will happen, including regular meetings between Ottawa and Indigenous governments.
Bellegarde said, however, that the provinces have to be part of the conversation, because it’s provincial government services that are most affected. In Canada, Ottawa provides the funding for child protection services on reserves but those services are governed by provincial laws and in most cases, provided by provincial agencies.
Bill C-92 will change that, setting national standards in federal law that will require child welfare services provided to First Nations, Metis and Inuit children put children’s best interests first, including preserving their culture, language, religion and heritage, and recognizing the importance of having an ongoing relationship with their community.
Some provinces are wary or flat-out reject the bill. Quebec has gone to court to the challenge the law as unconstitutional, while Manitoba has expressed concern about how parallel systems will co-operate, including with child-abuse registries and the provincial court system.
Miller said he believes the law is constitutional.
He also said funding is going to require a conversation with provincial governments. Provincial governments do fund services for Indigenous children living off reserves, but some organizations and communities will want to introduce their own programs regardless of where their kids are living, which may require transfers of both federal and provincial funds.
Miller said the goal has to be how to make things better, not to fight over jurisdiction.
“I would prefer to be in a discussion as to who is doing the best job by Indigenous children and not who has the right to continue to be doing a miserable job, which is what we’ve been doing up to now,” he said.
Miller did not, however, put any new money on the table. The Assembly of First Nations estimated last year that at least $3.5 billion over five years will be needed to properly implement Bill C-92.
Chronic underfunding for Indigenous child welfare services led the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to rule in 2016 that the federal government was discriminating against First Nations children.
Providing enough money so social services can work with families to prevent kids from being put in foster care is one of the key needs. That lack of service is one of the reasons Indigenous children are more likely to be taken away from their parents than non-Indigenous children are.
About eight per cent of children in Canada are First Nations, Inuit or Metis but they account for more than half the kids in care, and as many as 90 per cent in Manitoba.
Miller said Tuesday he wants the budget to be determined by what is needed as communities and organizations take the steps to create their own programs.
For First Nations child-welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock, the new law is meaningless without specific, targeted funding for communities to protect their own children.
The executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which brought the challenge that led to the 2016 human-rights ruling, said the lack of any actual dollars is a big red flag that this will be nothing more than lip service.
“Children’s lives didn’t change today,” she said.
Blackstock noted the Liberal government, like the Conservative one before it, fought the accusation it wasn’t funding First Nations kids equally and has not fully responded to the tribunal’s repeated orders to fix that.