Indigenous groups generally welcomed the recommendations made in the report into Quebec’s youth protection services released May 3. Although only two of the report’s 550 pages specifically addressed Indigenous issues, this was largely because effective solutions have already been offered by previous commissions.
The report was commissioned two years ago after the death of a seven-year-old girl in Granby was attributed to the system’s failure. Shortly after the inquiry was called, two young Huron-Wendat children died after several warnings to the Direction de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ) went ignored.
“We must move from indignation to dignity,” concluded Régine Laurent, who led the commission. “We must turn our anger into action… A number of commissions have already examined Indigenous issues and the solutions are known – it is time to take action.”
The report emphasized that the youth protection system has been underfunded since its creation in 1979, and its deterioration has reached a critical point. Between 2014 and 2019, reports to the DPJ jumped 21%. There has been a worrying increase in isolation and medication measures with insufficient educational and psychological support.
Laurent recommended updating Quebec’s child protection laws, creating a charter of children’s rights and implementing an independent commissioner to oversee this system. The report also encourages expanding adoption opportunities and mediation techniques to minimize judicial proceedings.
The child’s interest should be paramount in all decisions, including preservation of their cultural identity and their participation in decisions concerning them. As ignorance about cultural diversity often leads to discriminatory practices and the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the system, Laurent affirmed the importance of self-determination.
“We believe that reforming the legislative framework for youth protection in Quebec, in support of the governance and laws of the First Nations, is a fundamental matter,” responded Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL). “First Nations have the right to self-determination, which includes jurisdiction over child and family services.”
While Quebec is the only province opposing federal Bill C-92, which gives Indigenous communities control of their own child welfare systems, it suggests it will support their autonomy through Article 37.5 of the Youth Protection Act. The AFNQL is supporting both communities that want to create their own laws and those using Quebec’s system in the interim.
“Just because First Nations go down this interim road of using a Quebec model, please don’t take that as a generalization that they don’t want to exercise their inherent rights,” said AFNQL social services manager Richard Gray. “Youth protection is a complex issue and First Nations have to think about traditional practices, language and family relations. They want to get it right and ensure all their members understand and agree.”
Gray applauded the commission’s recommendations for Indigenous self-governance and a more preventive approach. He said AFNQL’s research revealed negligence as the biggest factor in DPJ interventions involving Indigenous children, with only about 15% of cases a result of extreme maltreatment.
“The Youth Protection Act is not the proper door to go through for solving problems regarding negligence,” Gray told the Nation. “It should be community-based prevention services with the first kick at the can to support these families. We’re interested in making prevention approaches more readily available.”
Gray believes DPJ workers don’t adequately understand Indigenous culture and how social determinants often lead to neglect. Laurent’s report calls for a greater societal shift to reach families before they end up in the system, including better school services and increased funding for community groups specializing in domestic violence, food security and transitioning youth to adulthood.
“The community is really the force that can help in the child’s life and in the prevention of violence,” said Marilou Leclerc-Dufour, a facilitator for ESPACE Gaspésie-les-Îles, a group that works to prevent child violence. “It’s been years that organizations have talked about this. It would be useful for First Nations to solve those problems within the community.”
The Quebec government announced it will table significant reforms to its youth protection laws this fall, indicating it supports the commission’s general conclusions. It’s expected the province will establish oversight authorities, provide better support to foster families and enact a charter of children’s rights.
For Cindy Blackstock, director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the report’s findings that anglophone and allophone communities are disproportionately affected by youth protection are evidence the system doesn’t put children’s well-being first. However, she’s not convinced establishing a children’s rights charter will make much difference.
“What I worry about sometimes with these charters, is they’re symbolic and don’t result in real change,” Blackstock said. “That’s why having a binding accounting mechanism is required. Something along the lines of having a children’s lawyer who could litigate against systemic matters and the state if they fail to take these actions.”
She pointed to existing documents, like the AFNQL’s “Declaration of the Rights on First Nations Children” introduced in 2015, which outlines appropriate standards of care and jurisdiction. While Laurent’s report proposed creating an assistant commissioner exclusively dedicated to the rights and well-being of Indigenous children, it remains to be seen whether this position will “have teeth” or merely make recommendations.
“It should be at minimum a First Nations, Métis and Inuit commissioner who has parallel powers, because the situations affecting these communities are unique,” said Blackstock. “It shouldn’t just be a reporting position for another children’s commissioner – governments have already shown they will not act on these recommendations.”
With a steady stream of reports going back decades recommending greater funding and prevention services for youth protection, she argued governments already have the tools for making change. For instance, a 1967 federal report proposes more support for Indigenous families to keep their children at home.
“They have chosen – not failed – chosen not to implement those reforms even though they know they could help children,” asserted Blackstock. “First Nations need to have equitable funding to not only support child abuse prevention, but also address the structural factors that drive children into child welfare.”
Image of Cindy Blackstock provided by Patrick Quinn