Canada is only six weeks away from one of the largest-ever reforms to Indigenous child welfare and Ottawa has not shared information about how it will be implemented or funded, Manitoba’s families minister says.
“This is not the way to bring about reforms in such an important area as this will have an impact on the most vulnerable people in our society – which is our children,” Heather Stefanson said. “This is unacceptable.”
Ms. Stefanson said she shared her concerns with former Indigenous services minister Seamus O’Regan last month about the rollout of legislation that includes an extensive overhaul of Indigenous child welfare across the country.
She said she never received a response.
Ms. Stefanson said she sent another letter to newly appointed Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller this week reasserting the province’s concerns.
Rebecca Schulz, Alberta’s children’s services minister, said she reached out to Mr. O’Regan last spring and received “little to no answers.” She said it’s important Mr. Miller provides details quickly.
“We have a huge concern with how the federal government rolled this out. We are not alone in that,” she said. “We share that with local First Nation communities as well as Métis organizations and other provinces.”
Joel Kilbride, with Saskatchewan’s Social Services Ministry, said in an e-mailed statement that Indigenous Services asked that the province’s questions be deferred until after the new cabinet minister was assigned.
The federal government has said the legislation will reduce the number of Indigenous children in care by affirming the inherent rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.
Indigenous groups – which are not defined in the legislation – are to give notice of their intent to exercise jurisdiction or request a tripartite co-ordination agreement with the federal and provincial governments. They would develop or implement existing laws related to child welfare and those would prevail over federal and provincial laws.
There is no funding attached to the legislation.
Rola Tfaili, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said the department can’t provide specific information until the new year. Ms. Tfaili said implementation will be co-developed with Indigenous partners and stakeholders.
Ms. Stefanson said she supports the overall objective of the legislation, but noted there’s no clear plan for how it will be implemented or funded.
In Manitoba, the stakes are high, she said. There are about 10,000 children in care in the province and about 90 per cent are Indigenous.
“We want to ensure these kids don’t fall through the cracks as a result of these changes that are being imposed by the federal government.”
There are more than 60 First Nations in Manitoba. While many people live on reserves, a significant number live in urban centres.
There is also a large Métis population. Ms. Stefanson said the legislation needs to address situations in which kids have connections to multiple communities.
She is concerned about data-sharing between agencies, such as the child-abuse registry, and how equity in care and work within provincial courts will be ensured.
“This is arguably the biggest reform of child welfare in the history of our country and there’s been no dialogue.”
Manitoba is doing its own child-welfare overhaul.
Ms. Stefanson said there are also questions about how the reform will affect the jurisdiction of the Manitoba advocate for children and youth.
Advocate Daphne Penrose said there must be a clear plan for moving from the current system to the new law. She said she has not received any communication from the federal government.
“Children’s lives depend on this system protecting them in a number of areas and supporting families to stay together,” she said.
“The federal government needs to provide communication and resources and funding and transitional frameworks in order for this to be done in a meaningful and good way for kids.
“Those commitments need to be in place.”
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