Indigenous child welfare bill could be life-changing, says Mi'kmaq confederacy

A new bill that would overhaul the Indigenous child welfare system could be life-changing for First Nation families, says the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I.

The federal government introduced Bill C-92 on Thursday. If passed, the legislation would cede jurisdiction on child welfare from other levels of government to Indigenous peoples so that they can care for their own children in a culturally appropriate way.

Marilyn Birch, director of the child and family services program with the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I., said "it has been something we have been waiting for for quite some time."

"This could potentially, and I am hoping will, change the lives of children going forward so that we aren't going back and apologizing in future years for things that the government didn't get right," she said.

An Indigenous-led child welfare system is a departure from how the current system works, which leaves most Indigenous kids housed in provincially governed child welfare systems that critics say are inattentive to their unique needs.

52.2% of all children in foster care

While just 7.7 per cent of all Canadian children under 14 are Indigenous, they account for 52.2 per cent of all children in foster care. For privacy reasons, Birch would not say how many Indigenous children on P.E.I. are in foster care.

While Bill C-92 outlines new governing principles, federal, provincial and Indigenous governments are expected to hash out new child welfare agreements and settle on best practices in each jurisdiction.

We need to see this through but we need to see it through in a way that is good for the First Nations. — Marilyn Birch

Currently on P.E.I., Birch said, the province provides child protection services to all children who live on the Island, while the confederacy program provides prevention and early intervention services for children in families that live on-reserve.

Birch said provincial child protection officials consult with her about cases that might involve First Nations families. Under the new bill, her input could carry more weight.

"One of the things that I am hoping is that when the bill does become official that we would have more authority within the court system around the First Nation rights for making decisions around child welfare."

10 weeks to pass bill

Birch said now she just hopes the bill will be passed. Politicians only have 10 weeks left in the House for the bill to become law.

"There's a lot of work that needs to happen to get this through because with an election and possibly new government we don't know what will happen and this may be stalled and it's really an historic moment," she said.

"We need to see this through but we need to see it through in a way that is good for the First Nations."

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