APTN National News
With the ink barely dry, Aboriginal Affairs moved to shelter itself from dealing with the subject matter of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first five recommendations in its report released Tuesday.
The regional director general for Aboriginal Affair’s British Columbia branch sent a letter Wednesday to the province’s First Nation child and family services agencies saying the department would no longer be part of tripartite funding and delegation agreements.
The change was interpreted as an attempt by Aboriginal Affairs to limit its responsibilities for First Nations child-welfare with a human rights tribunal ruling looming.
The “Delegation Confirmation Agreements” between Ottawa, the province and the First Nations agencies have been in place for about two decades. The agreements allow for the federal department to fund First Nations agencies in B.C.
“After careful review of the agreements, AANDC has concluded that delegating child-welfare responsibility is not within the department’s scope or authority,” said the letter from Eric Magnuson, regional director general for Aboriginal Affairs’ B.C. branch. “As provinces and territories have legislative authority over all child welfare and protection activities, the department has no legal role in delegation.”
The letter caught First Nations officials involved in child-welfare off-guard, since the tripartite agreements have been in place for years and the change arrived with little warning.
While no one was ready to comment on the letter because the issue was still being analyzed, one legal opinion to a B.C. First Nations organization concluded that it appeared the move is connected to the expected ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations child-welfare.
The human rights tribunal is expected to soon deliver its decision on a complaint launched by Cindy Blackstock, the president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations. The complaint alleges Aboriginal Affairs discriminates against First Nations children because it pays less to First Nations child welfare agencies than the provinces pay for the same off-reserve services.
The department has argued before the tribunal it has no responsibility for First Nation child-welfare services beyond cutting the cheques.
The department’s involvement with tripartite agreements in B.C., however, undercuts that argument. By ending its involvement in the tripartite agreement, the department appears to be trying to limit its exposure should the human rights tribunal side with Blackstock.
“When AANDC enters into and participates in agreements it indicates that they accept and recognize responsibility in that area,” said the legal opinion. “Now that the decision on the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society is imminent, this is a preliminary step in trying to reduce their fiduciary obligations (or other duties) in this area.”
Blackstock said she couldn’t comment on the letter until she consulted with her lawyer on its implications.
In order for a First Nations child welfare-agency to deliver services it needs the delegated authority from the province. Without the tripartite agreement, the agencies in B.C. would now have to sign a separate delegation agreement with the province before signing a funding agreement with Ottawa.
Magnuson’s letter said Aboriginal Affairs’ financial and legal responsibilities are limited to what is spelled out in funding agreements.
The department’s move to try to reduce its exposure and limit its responsibilities on First Nations child-welfare seems to ignore the first five of the TRC’s 94 recommendations which deal specifically with child welfare.
The recommendations call on Ottawa to engage deeper on the issue with the provinces. The TRC called on Ottawa to publish annual reports on child-welfare rates and enact Aboriginal child-welfare federal legislation setting national standards.
The TRC report concluded that “Canada’s child-welfare system has simply continued the assimilation that the residential school system started.”
B.C. First Nations agencies have not received any increases to child-welfare prevention funding in about 24 years.
The department’s own numbers show it is underfunding B.C. First Nations child welfare by about $21 million.
Aboriginal Affairs spends about $600 million funding 105 agencies across the country.