Indigenous children, families and the 2021 federal budget

·6 min read

Canada’s child-welfare system is broken and “will cost billions to fix,” says Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.

Miller spoke to IndigiNews on April 23 about the federal budget, which was released on April 19.

It’s been more than two years since the federal government released a budget. In the meantime, groundbreaking child-welfare legislation — an Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families (also known as Bill C-92) — came into force on Jan. 1, 2020.

IndigiNews asked Miller to explain what this budget will do for Indigenous children and families, including whether he believes Canada has committed enough money for the implementation of Bill C-92.

We also asked why the government continues to fight the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s orders around compensation for First Nations children who were removed from their families and those who experienced delays and denials of services which should have been available to them under Jordan’s Principle.

Here’s what the Minister of Indigenous Services had to say:

The federal budget promises $73.6 million over four years to support the implementation of Bill C-92.

This funding is in addition to $542 million announced by the federal government last November. But Miller says it still isn’t enough.

The act provides a framework for Indigenous groups to “exercise their jurisdiction over child and family services.” So far, 27 nations have given notice to the federal government, stating their intent to exercise their jurisdiction, according to the government’s website.

“I think we all recognize this is a system that has been broken for some time,” says Miller.

“As part of transforming the system, we have to recognize that we need to support communities financially. That includes provinces continuing to step up their support.”

Miller says it is very complex to transform a system in partnership with provinces that have “jurisdiction over child and family laws that have applied to Indigenous Peoples.”

According to a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), the province is “committed to working with the federal government and Indigenous communities and organizations to improve the lives of Indigenous children, youth and families.”

MCFD Minister Mitzi Dean will be “participating in a federal-provincial-territorial meeting on May 6 to discuss Bill C-92 implementation,” the spokesperson adds in an email to IndigiNews.

B.C.’s 2021 budget does not include any money for Indigenous communities that are implementing Bill C-92.

Miller points out that last year his government already committed to spending “just north of” $540 million on the act’s implementation, and “calls for proposals are currently open under that envelope of funding.”

This funding is meant to “support Indigenous partners in developing legislation and delivery models, engaging their communities, and hiring experts,” according to a statement from the federal government. It’s also meant to “fund participation of Indigenous groups at coordination agreement tables with provinces and territories.”

“The numbers in the [2021] budget were for the ramping up of those discussions,” Miller says. “These are all steps in transforming a system and moving it from a broken intervention status quo that it is now, that has affected Indigenous children and families, to one that is more prevention based, and that’s something that will occur over the long term.”

The Assembly of First Nations and the Caring Society asked the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD), a think-tank based at the University of Ottawa, to “define a funding approach and performance measurement framework for First Nations child and family services.”

In 2020, the IFSD published its recommendations, which included the implementation of a “block funding approach” which would allow service providers more flexibility.

According to their report, the IFSD aimed to “reset the structure, funding and governance of the current First Nations child and family services system.”

Miller says Indigenous Services Canada has “been working with the IFSD framework and working with the drafters of the report.”

Asked whether he plans to follow the recommendations laid out in the IFSD’s report, he says, “[The IFSD] doesn’t necessarily mirror word for word the way our programs work. There’s still work to be done in and around capacity and that capacity often goes over and above what ISC does.”

“My expectation is that we will have to continue to invest in those initiatives that serve the best interest of the child,” Miller says.

As previously reported by IndigiNews, Richard Gray, who is the social services manager with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission says he is concerned that confidentiality agreements are being signed during C-92 negotiations.

“This is a huge problem and we can’t allow the feds to utilize these confidentiality agreements in negotiations or discussions,” says Gray at an Assembly of First Nations virtual gathering on First Nations child welfare.

In response to this concern, Miller says, “Confidentiality agreements are intended, from a federal perspective, to preserve the integrity and the respect that we have with our partners so that we are not airing out our views or trying to negotiate in public.

“In the short time I’ve had to learn this as a minister, it’s important as a matter of respect to do so. It is not intended to prejudice individual members or silence our First Nations partners,” he says.

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) ruled that the federal government was discriminating against First Nations children through its service approach. Since then, the CHRT has issued a number of non-compliance orders to ensure that the full scope of Jordan’s Principle is applied.

Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle in honour of Jordan River Anderson from the Norway House Cree Nation. Anderson was born with multiple disabilities and he lived his whole life in a hospital, while the provincial and federal governments argued over who should pay for the cost of his home care. He died at age five.

IndigiNews asked Miller when the federal government will stop fighting the CHRT and funnel funds directly to First Nations.

“We know that fixing the broken system of child and family services that has ravaged families and children is broken and it will cost billions to fix,” he says.

“We’ve continued to fund Jordan’s Principle and it is a very large part of the Indigenous Services Canada budget.”

The budget does not specifically mention new money for Jordan’s Principle. In March 2021, the federal government filed written submissions before the Federal Court in support of two applications for judicial review of CHRT rulings “which relate to compensation and the definition of a First Nations child for the purposes of Jordan’s Principle eligibility.” The federal government is arguing that the CHRT’s September 2019 ruling “demonstrates an overreach of jurisdiction which fails to adequately advance fair, equitable and comprehensive compensation.”

In a report released on Feb. 23, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates it will cost the federal government anywhere from $2.4 billion to $15 billion to comply with the CHRT’s decision, depending on how you interpret the CHRT’s orders.“Obviously there are things that money can’t replace and that goes to the systemic nature of what these children have suffered,” says Miller.

“This is a broken system that will cost billions to fix,” he reiterated. “We are invested in it, but it has to be done in partnership with our nation-to-nation partners and that is something no court case can fix.”

See the full interview with Minister Marc Miller here.

Anna McKenzie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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