National Newswatch

OTTAWA — Child welfare agencies on reserves will immediately start getting funding to cover the actual cost of programs to keep families together, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said Thursday.

The commitment is a direct response to an order from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal made public on Thursday.

It was the fourth time the tribunal said Canada was not fully complying with its 2016 order to stop discriminating against kids on reserves and demanding proper funding for child and family service programs. In its 99-page decision, the tribunal panel said while the federal government had taken some steps to respond to the 2016 order in the last two years, it is "incorrect for Canada to say it did everything it could and everything that was asked of it."

The tribunal also took issue with Canada's argument that the tribunal can't make orders about specific funding, saying that goes against the idea that human rights legislation is there to ensure governments uphold rights.

"More importantly, this case is vital because it deals with mass removal of children," said the tribunal. "There is urgency to act and prioritize the elimination of the removal of children from their families and communities."

While Indigenous children represent about seven per cent of all kids under the age of 15, they make up more than half of all kids in foster care. In some provinces as many as 90 per cent of kids in care are First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

Indigenous advocates and child welfare experts for decades blamed the fact governments funded foster care for Indigenous kids at the same rates as non-Indigenous kids, but when it comes to programs to help keep families together, programs on reserves were grossly underfunded. It meant there was an incentive for agencies to take kids away because it was the only way they could recoup their expenses.

In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society brought a human rights complaint which resulted in the 2016 ruling that First Nations kids were being discriminated against.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the caring society, said Thursday it was shameful it took two years and four orders of non-compliance for Ottawa to get to the point of funding actual needs for kids, but she said at least it is happening now.

"Today is a good day for kids," said Blackstock. "We have to stop letting them down."

The tribunal gave the government until April 2 to fully fund prevention programs or risk being found in contempt, but Philpott says there will be no delay.

She wrote to 105 First Nations child welfare agencies on Thursday to tell them of the changes, saying "from this point forward" any prevention, investigation, intake, legal fees or building repairs they undertake will be reimbursed. That can include parenting programs, assistance finding work, counselling, transportation for kids to and from medical appointments, or even things as basic as helping a family buy a crib or extra formula.

The agencies generally receive a budgeted amount at the start of the year for these programs based on outdated assumptions about the number of families that need help. Whatever those budgets don't cover will be reimbursed when agencies submit their costs to her department, Philpott said.

Blackstock said the commitment will eventually mean more families can stay together, because they will get the kinds of support they need rather than just have their kids yanked away.

The vast majority of children in foster care are there because of neglect and poverty, not abuse. Child welfare experts have said for decades that if programs could help lift families out of poverty, rather than just take kids away, it would be far more beneficial to everyone.

NDP Indigenous Affairs Critic Charlie Angus said he is concerned there isn't a dollar figure attached to the promise. Philpott said they are still sorting out what this will cost and that the money will be in the 2018 federal budget, but Angus said it's worrying that government doesn't know what it has to spend.

Angus said a recent report on the funding shortfall in Manitoba alone was $80 million a year, which would mean the shortfall nationally is likely at least $200 million.

— follow @mrabson on Twitter.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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