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New Indigenous child-welfare law takes effect, but minister says change will be slow

FILE - Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller speaks at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.
FILE - Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller speaks at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Some Indigenous communities could soon take over authority for their child-welfare systems under a federal law that took effect this week. But it could be years before others are prepared to take on the responsibility under what federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller calls a “complex” piece of legislation.

“This is a process that will be continual throughout the next few years, and the system which is broken will continue to be so for some time,” Miller told The Canadian Press Thursday.

“Each community has different capacities and preparedness,” the minister added.

READ MORE: Trudeau government appeals ruling on compensation to First Nations children

“Some of the most vulnerable will just simply not be, because of issues of capacity, in a position to exercise the whole suite of options that would be available under the law.”

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The new law, passed as Bill C-92 last June, affirms the rights of those communities to enforce their own rules around child and family services. It also shifts the focus of those services to preventing the removal of children from their families and communities.

The goal is to improve the health and well-being of Indigenous children currently under care and in generations to come.

Indigenous children account for more than half of all kids in foster care even though fewer than 10 per cent of all Canadian children are Indigenous, a statistic Miller calls “shocking.”

Sask. First Nations waiting for federal dollars to start child welfare programs
Sask. First Nations waiting for federal dollars to start child welfare programs

“Change will not come overnight,” Miller said.

“The only way to achieve this is to continue to work with our partners through this transition period to make sure the law works for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people, and most importantly, for their children.”

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A number of Indigenous communities have already expressed keen interest in taking over those responsibilities.

Until Indigenous communities pass their own child-services laws, Miller said services currently provided to Indigenous children will continue as before.

READ MORE: Advocates for First Nations children, families critical of federal welfare changes

However, under Bill C-92, which took effect Wednesday, Indigenous service providers will immediately have to apply basic principles set out in the act when a child comes into care, including consideration of the child’s physical and emotional well-being, the importance of the child’s relationship with his or her family and community and maintaining a connection to their culture.

Some Indigenous communities have expressed concerns that no stable funding to help them take over child-welfare services has been provided under the legislation.

The Assembly of First Nations has estimated the total cost of transitioning from federal and provincial care to community-based systems could reach $3.5 billion.

Some of that money could be scattered over several departments in the upcoming spring federal budget for things like social housing, family assistance programs and health care, Miller predicted.

Legal challenge begins for federal compensation of Indigenous children
Legal challenge begins for federal compensation of Indigenous children

But just how much of the spending will be earmarked this year will depend on the outcome of talks among various federal ministers, their provincial and territorial counterparts and Indigenous community leaders, he said.

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The Quebec government is challenging the legislation, arguing that it infringes on provincial jurisdiction.

But the federal government will implement the law, regardless of any constitutional challenge, Miller said.

“We’ll be moving forward in any event.”