Experts say ‘B.C.’ budget doesn’t go far enough on child welfare, climate

Increased support for Indigenous children and Youth in “care” is one of the items in this year’s provincial budget, which was unveiled in the legislature late last week.

Other key investments for Indigenous communities revolve around climate change, business and infrastructure — however critics say the plan is weak when it came to tackling some of these issues.

Finance Minister Katrine Conroy’s 2024 budget commits a record $43.3 billion in capital funding over the next three years, with a projected deficit of $7.9 billion in 2024-25.

During the plan’s announcement in lək̓ʷəŋən territories on Feb. 22, Conroy said the government would be improving frontline support for children and Youth in care.

“This includes doubling the number of Roots workers to help Indigenous children in care and out-of-care homes remain connected to their culture and community,” she said.

There has been a move over recent years to place children in alternative care with a family member or someone with an established relationship or cultural connection, which requires organization from frontline workers and support staff.

Frontline services will see an increase in support with up to 72 new child welfare and oversight staff, including an increase to Roots worker positions from 14 to 25. Roots workers assist Indigenous children and Youth through cultural connection and planning.

“Budget 2024 provides $114 million over three years to support children in government care or who are placed in alternative care (or out-of-care) arrangements with a family member or someone with an established relationship or cultural connection,” according to the budget.

The budget also includes $10 million over three years to fund the Director’s Legal Counsel and Indigenous Child and Family Service Agencies Secretariat.

“These services support children in care and include addressing the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care and work to improve the well-being of Indigenous children, youth, families, and communities,” the budget states.

As of March 2022, of the 5037 children in care, 3425 were Indigenous, according to a Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) report.

However, the province’s Representative for Children and Youth said the budget did not go far enough when it comes to child welfare.

Specifically, Jennifer Charlesworth said more resources should have been funnelled into supporting a transition of services from MCFD to Indigenous governing bodies. Among other points, she also said more resources should have been put into closing the gaps for children living off-reserve and have less access to resources as a result.

“While I am encouraged by some of the commitments that government has made, I continue to be disappointed that the acute needs of B.C.’s most vulnerable young people are not being reflected fiscally,” said Charlesworth in a statement.

“I expect much more, and children, Youth as well as their families and communities are telling us very loudly that they expect more as well.”

As “B.C.” experiences more climate-related emergencies, the budget included some emphasis on both responding to climate disasters and emergency preparedness. Recent years have seen an unprecedented frequency of severe weather events.

These emergencies heavily affect First Nations, and the impacts of events such as forest fires or flooding to not just safety, but also vital infrastructure are of grave concern for all.

The 2024 budget commits $405 million over four years towards fighting climate emergencies.

“This includes $154 million in operating and $21 million in capital funding to support additional wildfire response, recovery and infrastructure resources following B.C.’s record wildfire season in 2023,” according to the province.

This part of the budget, too, was critiqued by experts — as the environmental organization Wilderness Committee said the focus is too much on responding to climate emergencies and not enough on other key areas such as cutting emissions and increasing biodiversity.

“Things like worsening floods and wildfires are costing us more, and the science tells us these costs will continue to balloon as long as carbon emissions remain where they are,” said the organization’s associate director Torrance Coste in a statement.

“While the BC NDP is paying the initial bills, they continue to drag their feet on measures to really rein in the most polluting sectors and prevent the most polluting projects.”

Local infrastructure is of vital importance to many rural First Nations, with $24 million set aside to provide safer access to communities through improvements to forest service roads.

The budget includes $12 million set aside for First Nations to improve their equipment stockpile and maintenance worker capacity. Another $67 million over four years is set aside to support inland ferry services. These services serve a vital infrastructure function for many Indigenous communities and are an essential part of the provincial highway system.

Another key investment area for First Nations is tools for Indigenous businesses and financial enterprise — which includes equity loan guarantees.

“These tools include provincial equity loan guarantees and other supports through a new First Nations Equity Financing Framework,” according to the province.

“The framework will assist First Nations in pursuing self-determined participation in important projects across a broad range of sectors.”

This part of the budget was applauded by the First Nations Major Projects Coalition (FNMPC).

“The establishment of the B.C. Framework sends a strong signal to the private sector and capital markets that First Nations equity partnerships in B.C. can be financed, and see projects get off the ground sooner rather than later,” said FNMPC board chair Sharleen Gale.

The budget also includes two one time payments — something that was rare prior to the pandemic — that coincide with an election year, as well as investments in healthcare, housing and more.

“Wherever we live — city, town, rural or First Nations community — we all want a decent, affordable home, quality health care, help when we need it, and a strong future full of opportunity for everyone,” said Conroy in a statement. “In the face of global challenges, like inflation and high interest rates, we are taking on big challenges and supporting people to build a good life in B.C.”

Spencer Sacht-Lund, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews