OTTAWA — Indigenous leaders expressed optimism Friday that the federal government is finally trying to fix a child-welfare system that has become Canada's modern version of residential schools.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott intends to introduce legislation early in the new year that would enshrine principles for Indigenous child welfare into federal law, she announced, including community control over decisions made for children and no longer using poverty alone to justify taking children from their parents.
The broad strokes of the bill were set over the last year in consultation with Indigenous leaders and families after years of cries from Indigenous parents that their children were not receiving the care they deserved.
The federal government is responsible for child welfare on reserves but has chronically underfunded the agencies that provide it. Children placed in foster care, however, are cared for by the provincial authorities that handle child welfare for everyone else.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 ruled the federal government discriminated against First Nations children on reserves because the only way they got the same child-welfare funding and programming as other kids in Canada was if they were taken into care, often in non-Indigenous households far from their home communities. And those arrangements have their own problems.
The tribunal ruling came almost a decade after the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society made a human-rights complaint about the issue. Every year that passed, more and more children were taken into care.
"This is our modern-day variation on the legacy of residential schools," said Philpott.
She said children placed in foster care are at great risk for homelessness, incarceration, human trafficking, suicide and homicide.
Nationally, more than half the kids in foster care are Indigenous. In some provinces, such as Manitoba, that number is close to 90 per cent. Philpott said about 80 per cent of the time the reason kids are apprehended is on allegations of "neglect" — but really that just means their families are poor.
"I reject the term 'neglect' as a satisfactory explanation for why a child should be apprehended," she said. "If there is neglect it's not necessarily neglect on the part of parents, it's neglect on the part of the government and the system that leaves people in poverty."
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he hopes this legislation will mean the number of Indigenous kids in care will finally start to decrease.
"It's a step and that's the hope you've got to hang onto," he said. "From what I see, from the AFN's perspective, as national chief, this is more hope that that number will go down. That those children will be at home with their parents and their families, their communities, their nations. That they will be surrounded with love."
Bellegarde joined Philpott on Parliament Hill for the announcement Friday, along with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed and Metis National Council president Clement Chartier.
Obed said he believes the consultation leading to this legislation has been better than similar endeavours in the past, when the government did the least it possibly could to protect its own interests and obligations.
"We feel that in this process that the government of Canada is wishing to make the most of this opportunity, to try to create legislation that allows for the best possible scenarios for the intended outcome," he said.
Philpott said this is just one piece of the solution, and that the $1.4 billion in new Indigenous child-welfare funding in this year's federal budget is also meant to address the issue by paying for the actual costs child-welfare agencies incur to protect and help children and families. The legislation is needed so everyone in the system, across the country, is on the same page.
"I think just by laying down in federal law those basic core principles of the best interest of the child, of family unity, of cultural continuity, of non-discrimination, there will be a clear signal that will shift the system faster than we may imagine," she said.
Bellegarde said the solution also lies in closing the gap of services and funding for education, housing, health care and other social services that contribute to high rates of poverty in Indigenous communities.
Chartier said he believes the law will be a significant improvement.
Philpott hopes the legislation will be finished in time to be introduced when the House of Commons resumes sitting in late January. She also hopes there will be enough time to get it passed before the election next fall.
Obed said anyone who tries to make helping children a partisan game will pay for it with a drop in public support.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press