The federal law that recognizes the inherent right of Indigenous nations to oversee child welfare services – officially known as An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families – took effect on New Year’s Day this year.
Given that there are more Indigenous children in the system than at the height of the residential school era, it is overdue. By about a century.
Typical of the Justin Trudeau government, it looks great on paper and in the photo ops. In the details? Not so much. Though it has been the law of the land for over six months, there wasn’t any funding or even a timeline attached to it.
This apparently changed July 7 with the signing of a memorandum of understanding by the Assembly of First Nations and Indigenous Services Canada. Again, not so much.
The MOU is a vague agreement saying that an eventual budget will be determined, though communities and organizations must first take the steps to create their own programs.
The lack of timetables and funding commitments in the agreement has many worried. First Nations child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock says that without targeted funding for Indigenous communities to protect their children, the law and signed protocol are essentially meaningless. The feds, she says, are just paying lip service to First Nations concerns.
While Indigenous children make up about 8% of Canada’s youth, they represent over 50% of those in the child welfare system. Blackstock said the previous Conservative government ignored or fought the accusation of not taking Indigenous child welfare seriously and the Liberal government simply wants to look good while following the same essential policies.
There are signs that the current situation won’t see a resolution any time soon. Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller blames the Covid-19 pandemic for slowing things down. He added, ominously, that talks and negotiations to create a First Nations child welfare system acceptable to the Indigenous communities will take “many years.”
Meanwhile, the 40,000 or so children currently in the system will have to wait for the politicians to stop talking and start doing what’s right for them. Blackstock notes the protocol is not legally binding and calls it a “kind of paper tiger.”
But that paper tiger will make a few lawyers rich as the kids continue to suffer. The provinces fund these services for the children living off-reserve and many First Nations and organizations want to control Indigenous welfare services for children regardless of where they live. Miller said this would require a mixture of federal and provincial funding, which the provinces don’t like. Indeed, Quebec has already challenged the law on constitutional grounds, arguing that the law violates provincial jurisdiction.
In Canada everyone says the number of Indigenous children in the child welfare system is unacceptable, but there is no end in sight. We need a new way to pressure all levels of Canadian politicians, federal and provincial, to help our children.