Canada one step closer to child welfare reform, say Saskatchewan First Nations leaders

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand says every Indigenous community that enacts Bill C-92 will have different needs. Slavo Kutas / Global News

Two Saskatchewan First Nations leaders say Canada has taken a step forward on child welfare reform, despite frustrations about a perceived lack of progress.

The federal government and Assembly of First Nations (AFN) signed a protocol agreement on Tuesday, which they say will guide the implementation of the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children.

The legislation, passed as Bill C-92, empowers Indigenous communities to create their own child welfare systems.

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand said having a framework for discussions on implementation and funding is crucial.

“Whenever you enact something in law, it should actually be coming with a funding envelope,” Arcand told Global News.

“The law doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a proper financial contribution to ensure that no kids fall through the cracks.”

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The protocol calls for the creation of a “joint fiscal table” to explore financial hurdles for executing Bill C-92.

It also includes commitments to “regular” meetings between Ottawa and community leaders, and the development of a working group to create policies for implementation.

Ultimately, the law encourages Indigenous communities to decide which approach works best for their children, Arcand said.

“The communities have to be prepared to actually draft their own laws,” he said, noting they’ll also have to establish new child welfare policies and programs.

“We have to get this right in regards to making sure that every law is in place — whether it’s our natural laws or inherent laws — and putting them down on paper (so they’re) recognized by the provincial and federal governments.”

‘That frustration was heard’

AFN national Chief Perry Bellegarde co-signed the protocol with Indigenous services minister Marc Miller on Tuesday.

“The existing system, we all can admit, very clearly it’s not working,” Bellegarde said, noting there are more than 40,000 children in provincial care across Canada.

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“We know it’s not acceptable; we know that it’s not right, and so this is clearly an alternative to that.”

Last week, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) vice-chief David Pratt expressed frustration that the government wasn’t acting quickly enough to protect Indigenous children.

“That frustration was heard, I believe, and I think it may have helped tipped the negotiations for them to finally come to an agreement on this protocol,” said Pratt, who is in charge of the FSIN’s child welfare portfolio.

Still no budgetary estimates

Following the signing of the agreement on Tuesday, Miller did not say how much money the federal government will invest in the system overhaul.

The new protocol creates a road map for discussions about funding, he said.

“We do have to do this as a budgetary process, as an allocation process, but it can’t be a top-down process that comes only from Ottawa,” he said during a news conference.

Indigenous services minister Marc Miller (middle) and Assembly of First Nations national Chief Perry Bellegarde sign an agreement to advance the transfer of child welfare services to Indigenous communities. Global News

Miller said he has made budgetary requests, and expects funding numbers to roll out “in the next little while.”

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There also isn’t a timeline for implementation, as each community will move at its own pace.

“It’s not something that will happen overnight or at a set time point,” Miller said. “This will take many years.”

Pratt agreed the process will take years, but said in the meantime, the FSIN will continue to pressure Canada to act quickly to reduce the number of children in care.

Recent numbers from Saskatchewan’s social services ministry show there were 3,412 children in the province’s care in 2019, the highest that number has been in over a decade.

Click to play video: 'FSIN, Sask. NDP slam province’s child welfare approach, call for systemic change'
FSIN, Sask. NDP slam province’s child welfare approach, call for systemic change

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