Indigenous people in Manitoba overwhelmingly give the provincial government a failing grade when it comes to the child-welfare system.
That's according to the results of a poll that asked First Nations and Métis in the province to also weigh in on issues like identity, education and racism.
According to the poll, conducted by Probe Research in March 2017, just one out of 10 Indigenous people surveyed said they agree that the Manitoba government is doing a good job of managing the child welfare system.
That's no surprise to the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
"The 'man behind the curtain' is the Province of Manitoba when it comes to managing [child and family services], the child apprehension industry in Manitoba," said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.
"Our families, our communities, have no control over the maintenance of children in care — the maintenance side of it is what keeps kids away from their families and that's clearly a piece that's squarely in the camp of the province."
Manitoba's minister of family services said the situation is one his Progressive Conservative government inherited when they took power a year ago.
"We know the system needs to improve and that's really what our government has been focused on," said Scott Fielding.
He points to the recently introduced Child Protection Act, meant to better keep track of and share information about kids in care, and expanded powers for the province's children's advocate as proof of Manitoba's willingness to change the system.
Fielding also said the government wants more customary care, which sees children placed in the care of relatives, or at least in the same community.
"We've taken some good time to consult with the Indigenous community on some of the legislation we've introduced but there's no question when you have some of the highest numbers of children in care, and inherited that, it's going to take some time for that trust to build up."
500 First Nations, Métis polled
First Nations people who live on and off reserves, as well as Métis people in Winnipeg and other areas, were asked whether they agree that the "Manitoba government is doing a good job running the child-welfare system."
According to the poll, 42 per cent of First Nations people surveyed disagreed. For Métis respondents, the number was 51 per cent.
First Nations who live off reserves were also more likely to feel the province wasn't doing a good managing child welfare — 50 per cent of those respondents disagreed that the province was doing a good job, compared to 35 per cent of those who live on reserve.
The poll also said 55 per cent of First Nations and Métis people who call Winnipeg home said they weren't satisfied with how the province was running child welfare.
Conducted by telephone between March 6 and 29, 2017, 500 First Nations and Métis people took part in the Probe Research poll, from both urban and rural areas of Manitoba.
A mixed methodology, including primarily random sampling, was used. If only random sampling had been used, the margin of error for a survey of this size would be +/- 4.38 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Manitoba has long been criticized for the number of Indigenous kids in care. As of March 31, 2016, of the 10,501 children in care of Child and Family Services, 9,205 — or 88 per cent — were Inuit, Métis or First Nations.
"Manitoba has some of the highest apprehension rates in the western world," said Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which is meeting this week to discuss child welfare.
"[Chiefs] want to end the practice of newborn apprehension. I think in 2016 there were just under 400 newborn babies apprehended at birth, and the system is so difficult that it's hard to get those children back."
Overhauling the system
The province has also come under fire for several high-profile deaths of Indigenous children in care, including the murder of Tina Fontaine in 2014.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett recently said that Manitoba's child-welfare system needs to be overhauled to keep kids with families and focus on a child-centred approach. Her department recently reaffirmed a partnership with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to redesign child welfare in this province.
That process starts with community engagement sessions, asking about people's experiences with Child and Family Services and how they envision the system.
The department gave the organization $413,000 for the process in 2016 and another $140,000 to continue the work this year.
"We don't believe that the [child-welfare] agencies are the culprit," Nepinak said. "The culprit is policies and laws that are being forced upon the agencies as much as they're being forced upon everyone else."