First Nations chiefs prepare to take on Quebec over its legal challenge of new federal child welfare law

The Quebec government's decision to launch a constitutional challenge of a new federal law governing Indigenous child welfare has prompted First Nations leaders in Quebec to re-examine their relationship with the province.

In a widely criticized move, the Quebec government announced in mid-December it would be contesting the constitutionality of the law, Bill C-92, on the grounds that it interferes with the provinces' exclusive jurisdiction over social services and youth protection.

The Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ghislain Picard, called Quebec's move "shameful" and "unacceptable."

"Defending its so-called jurisdiction is one thing but doing it on the back of our children is another," said Picard at the time of Quebec's announcement.

"The Legault government is well aware that the current child welfare system does not work for First Nations children."

Bill C-92, which aims to turn over control of child protection to Indigenous communities and prioritizes the placement of Indigenous children in the care of members of their own extended families, officially went into effect Jan. 1.

Shifting the focus

The Quebec government was already set to meet Picard and other chiefs of First Nations in the province on Jan. 27.

That meeting was supposed to be a follow-up to the recommendations of the Viens commission — the provincial inquiry led by retired Superior Court justice Jacques Viens, who concluded in his September report that it is "impossible to deny" Indigenous people in Quebec are victims of "systemic discrimination."

However, Picard now says the focus of that meeting has to be shifted.

"We cannot pretend the C-92 challenge does not exist and put blinkers on, without taking the political context into account," Picard said.

First Nations leaders will now meet on Jan. 20 in the lead-up to that meeting with the province's leadership one week later.

"It's a meeting that seemed inevitable given the [events of the] past few weeks," said Picard. "It seemed important to us to take a look at our political relationship with the Quebec government."

Also on the agenda will be the government's response to the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The MMIWG report was tabled in June. Several of those recommendations directly affect Quebec.