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Bernard Richard, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, is seen at his office in Vancouver in November, 2016. Mr. Richard criticized B.C.’s NDP government on Tuesday for failing to implement changes to the province’s child-welfare system, despite solemn promises to do so.CHAD HIPOLITO

A recent decision by provincial social workers to apprehend an Indigenous newborn and not allow the mother sufficient time to breastfeed and bond was based on a racist, paternalistic approach to child welfare, B.C.'s watchdog for children and youth says.

And it is an approach that has not changed despite solemn promises from the provincial NDP government to improve the child-welfare system, Bernard Richard, the Representative for Children and Youth, said on Tuesday.

The B.C. Supreme Court last month ruled that officials with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) must provide the mother, who cannot be identified, with daily access to her baby girl, but the ministry's lawyers were back in court on Tuesday seeking to overturn the order.

"It is egregious and awful," said Mr. Richard, who has read all the files connected with the case, including those that are not publicly available.

The child was removed from her mother's care earlier this year just days after she was born and before the mother had left the hospital. The mother has said she was given no reason other than a concern regarding her mother.

"I've tried to understand it," Mr. Richard said. "I've spoken to ministry officials at a high level to express my outrage about how this case was handled. It's very concerning, it reeks of paternalism. The issues the ministry had related to the grandmother, rather than the mom herself. It raises concerns about systemic racism."

Mr. Richard noted that the family, from the Huu-ay-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island, has access to support 24 hours a day from their community, but the ministry has placed the baby with extended family in another city, forcing the young mother to live in a hotel to nurse her daughter.

"We hear the flowery speeches about how things are changing for First Nations child welfare, but this case points to an approach that is all too familiar," Mr. Richard said in an interview.

The ministry had been allowing the mother to see her baby for two-hours four days a week, and three hours on the fifth day. The ministry said it did not have enough weekend staff to accommodate visits on those days.

The Huu-ay-aht First Nation's chief councillor, Robert Dennis Sr., said it is "disheartening" that the ministry is fighting the Supreme Court decision to give her more access.

"The province is pushing back hard, they are not walking the talk," he said. The Huu-ay-aht developed a community plan in 2016 to provide child welfare services with the goal of ensuring that none of their children would be removed from the community. He said even more children are now in care than when they started. "We want to work with the province to end this type of practice," he said.

Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy said on Tuesday that the child welfare system she oversees must be reformed, but pleaded for time.

"The system doesn't work, the system has failed thousands of kids in this province. And we do have to change it," she said in an interview. She added that she has been "incredibly frustrated" with the pace of change, seven months after she was handed the portfolio.

"We are going to change the trajectory of how Indigenous child welfare is done in this province," she said. "We have to make sure social workers are changing the way they do their business."

The NDP, while in opposition, frequently criticized the over-representation of Indigenous children in care. Ms. Conroy said her government is working on legislation she hopes to introduce this spring to provide for Indigenous child welfare systems.

But Sonia Furstenau, the Green Party critic for child welfare, said Ms. Conroy has missed an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to change.

"If they are going back into court to try to undo the B.C. Supreme Court decision to value and protect the maternal bond and this infant's right to breastfeed, then they have failed and they should be ashamed," she said.

"Based on this case, the evidence is that the government is doubling down on the trajectory that they are already on, which has resulted in the over-representation of Indigenous children in care and the ripping of newborns from their mothers."

Federal Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott has described the Indigenous child-welfare system as "a humanitarian crisis," and in the budget tabled in February, Ottawa promised more than $1.4-billion over six years for First Nations child and family services. Indigenous children under the age of 14 comprise 7.7 per cent of all children in Canada but represent more than half of all children in foster care.

At a Friday meeting, ministers Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett called on welfare agencies to look for alternatives to removing kids from Indigenous communities. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde says changes need to be swift.

The Canadian Press

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