(Jane Philpott addressing the AFN SCA Wednesday in Ottawa. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)
The Minister of Indigenous Services has pledged to spend millions more on the First Nations child welfare issue in the coming budget to address what she called a “humanitarian crisis.”
Jane Philpott was the third federal cabinet minister to address the chiefs when she spoke to the Assembly of First Nations Wednesday.
Philpott, now three months into the job of heading a newly-created federal department, touched on a number of topics but she led off with the story she’d heard of a First Nation woman she called Laura.
Laura was in care her entire life. She became pregnant at age 16. Merely because she had been in contact with the system, her first child was apprehended at birth by child and family services workers, the minister said.
Her second and third children were likewise seized at birth.
When Laura became pregnant for the fourth time, she went to the First Nation family advocate in her region.
“She asked if she could just spend one whole day with her baby before it was taken,” Philpott said. “But when the child was born, it was seized. Laura did not get her wish.”
The minister said she’s heard many such stories. She called the child and family services (CFS) situation for First Nations people a “humanitarian crisis.”
The minister has called for an emergency meeting on CFS issues for next year.
She said First Nation children make up 7.7 per cent of all Canadian children in the zero to 14-year-old age group, but make up 52 per cent of children in care.
“And in some regions, it’s as high as 90 per cent,” she said. “That is absolutely unacceptable.”
Noting that $635 million had been targeted for First Nation child welfare initiatives in the 2016 federal budget, Philpott acknowledged that the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has said that “much more must be done” by the federal government.
The minister committed that there would be additional funding coming in Budget 2018 but would not say how much.
She also committed to listen to and work closely with First Nation leaders in her search for a solution.
“This must be fixed,” she said. “We have the opportunity to have a nation-to-nation direct conversation on this. We all know it’s going to take more than just money. It’s going to require systemic reform.”
Later, during a media scrum after her address, Philpott made one additional point. She said social workers should not remove children from their families simply because they were low income.
“I want to be on the record saying poverty should never be a reason to remove children,” she said.
Memo to cabinet on education in the works
The minister said she “was pleased to hear” that the chiefs had approved a resolution that would see First Nation control of First Nation education the day before.
The resolution sought to open up access to large pool of money targeted at improving on-reserve education.
The First Nation initiative sought to remove government controls and allow local governments to use the cash to tailor their education system to their own local needs.
Philpott told the chiefs there was a memo to cabinet being prepared by her officials that would propose legislation that would enable just that.
“This is the first memo to cabinet entirely co-developed by First Nations,” she said. “And yes, I will confirm, education is a treaty right.”
S-3 poised to become law
(AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde at the AFN SCA in Ottawa. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)
“There are going to be more status Indians,” National Chief Perry Bellegarde told the chiefs Wednesday morning as they awaited the arrival of Philpott.
Bellegarde was talking about the results of a vote in favour of an amendment to a bill that originated in the Senate.
It moved through the legislative process but was stalled when Senator Lillian Dyck insisted on the amendment that would extend the reach of the bill – designed to eliminate discrimination against women in Section 6 of the Indian Act – all the way back to Confederation.
The government was proposing to limit the reach of the new legislation at 1951, a year when extensive changes were made to the Indian Act.
Section 6 of the Indian Act was thrown out by a BC judge in the 2009 McIvor decision and the court gave the federal government a deadline to replace Section 6.
Eventually, the government passed legislation addressing the court ruling.
But three Abénakis people from the Odanak First Nation in Quebec, Stéphane Descheneaux, Susan Yantha and Tammy Yantha, believed the government’s response did not go far enough.
They went back to court and won in a case that has become known as the Descheneaux case.
S-3 will restore status to women who were treated differently than men in certain situations.
As with Bill C-31, the government’s first attempt to eliminate gender discrimination in the Indian Act which was passed in 1985, chiefs are worried that more status Indians will not necessarily mean more funding, which would result in a net loss for most on reserve residents.
“It’s a good thing you’re ending discrimination,” the national chief said. “But will there be sufficient resources?”
And Bellegarde pointed out that money is not the only consideration.
“The crown, they’re making half a treaty Indian,” he said. “Where’s the land?”
He said the treaties all called for so many acres per person or family and adding more people should mean adding more land.
“First Nations currently have 0.2 per cent of the land,” he added.
Permanent advisory committee to be created
(A number of chiefs and delegates stood to challenge Philpott on how the government is dealing with First Nation communities. Photo: Mark Blackburn/APTN)
Philpott told the chiefs that getting more First Nations people job skills and employment would bring $27.7 billion a year into the economy.
She said that could be accomplished if the government and First Nations can repair their fiscal relationship.
“There have been nine attempts since 1983 to do that so I can understand your skepticism,” she said. “To prove we’re serious a working group report recommendation to establish a permanent advisory committee has been accepted,” she said.
The committee will be in operation by March of 2019, she added.
The minister is looking to eliminate barriers to economic activity on reserve.
“The excessive reporting burden needs to be addressed,” she said.
She said government approaches with First Nations up to now have been “patronizing, punitive and regressive.”
Rather than have hundreds of reports required for First Nations to account for federal program dollars, she proposed a United Nations model which looked at key economic indicators to assess the how effectively the money was being used.
She also said the government was planning “10-year grants” to replace the current short-term funding agreements and added First Nations “would report to their own community members” rather than the federal bureaucracy.