Quebec nixes commissioner role for Indigenous children's well-being

The First Nations and Inuit are asking Quebec to respect self-governance in matters of child services. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The First Nations and Inuit are asking Quebec to respect self-governance in matters of child services. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Quebec will not be appointing an associate commissioner dedicated to the welfare of Indigenous children, after heeding calls to postpone the decision for months.

The role would have been created under Bill 37 — an Act Respecting the Commissioner for Children's Well-Being and Rights — sponsored by the minister responsible for social services, Lionel Carmant.

In February, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) and the Makivik Corporation strongly opposed the idea when a parliamentary committee was studying the bill.

Creating the role of a commissioner for the well-being and rights of children was a key recommendation of the Laurent Commission in 2021. The report also recommended that Indigenous communities set up their own independent institution to oversee their children's well-being and rights if they wish — a concept AFNQL Chief Ghislain Picard supports.

Picard told CBC News that the AFNQL did not want a First Nations commissioner who would be accountable to a commissioner appointed by the government.

He says the Quebec government seems to "finally acknowledge and recognize that First Nations have full jurisdiction in matters pertaining to the well-being of their children and families."

"We want no more and definitely no less than what Quebec wants to provide for safety of its people," wrote Picard in a statement.

He said Quebec is choosing to remove any reference to First Nations from the bill so that "individual agreements can be negotiated with communities [and] nations."

"That's where the devil in the details can influence the outcome," said Picard.

The AFNQL asked Quebec to recognize federal Bill C-92, which affirms that Indigenous communities have jurisdiction over child and family services and outlines national minimum standards of care.

Rather than having an associate commissioner report to a Quebec commissioner, Picard advocated for an independent institution which would instead report to First Nations and Inuit organizations.

"We have the right to appoint our own commissioner accountable to us, and to no one else," wrote Picard.

Co-operating with First Nations and Inuit

While Quebec has removed all provisions related to an associate commissioner for Indigenous children from Bill 37, amendments to the bill will allow the future children's well-being commissioner to work on matters concerning Indigenous children.

For example, the new commissioner and their potential Indigenous counterpart could produce an assessment of the state of First Nations and Inuit children's well-being and work on ways to document community members' concerns and opinions.

They may also work on monitoring and providing information on child deaths in communities and directing people to appropriate resources.

Quebec also amended the bill to allow for the creation of an assistant commissioner role.

According to Radio-Canada sources, Carmant believes having an additional representative for children's well-being is necessary given the scale of the task. An assistant commissioner would also be available to quickly replace the commissioner in case of prolonged absence.

And the province is seeking to expand the ability of the commissioner for children's well-being and rights to monitor child deaths.

An amendment to the bill would extend the commissioner's purview to include all child deaths as well as deaths of people aged 18 to 25 that the coroner investigated.