The top political leaders of B.C.'s First Nations communities say they intend to take full control of indigenous child welfare. The provincial government, which has taken many a beating for its failures in delivering these services, is happy to cede control.
The immediate concern voiced by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the watchdog for children and youth, was that the province's child-welfare service could shatter into 200 separate organizations – a reference to the 198 Indian Act bands that exist in the province. The present system does not meet the needs of aboriginal children: A patchwork of community agencies, however, is a recipe for disaster.
In a report two years ago, Ms. Turpel-Lafond urged the government to "abandon the dream" of walking away from its obligations to aboriginal kids. Her report made clear that setting up an alternative system won't be easy.
She panned the province's decision to hand over some child-welfare responsibilities to delegated aboriginal authorities, which often operate without enough qualified staff and without being required to provide measurable outcomes. And she found the province spent $66-million over 12 years on failed discussions about a new governance model – all without helping a single child.
That the province's child-protection services are underfunded and understaffed is not in dispute – the B.C. government is in the midst of restoring the budget. It is clear, too, that among kids in government care, aboriginal children are grossly over-represented. It is easy enough for First Nations politicians to harness anger in their communities against the present system.
The First Nations Leadership Council says it intends to transition to "culturally appropriate Indigenous child and family welfare approaches."
What that looks like, at this point, is unclear. And it is revealing that not one of B.C.'s eight modern treaty nations has exercised its right to take over child-protection services, citing lack of clarity over funding and the complexity of the work.
There is a promising model for an alternative that could work alongside the present system.
In 2013, Health Canada transferred its programs for B.C. First Nations to a new and unique agency. The First Nations Health Authority, or FNHA, provides a wide array of programs – dental services, maternal health and community drinking water safety to name a few. But it also works with federal and provincial agencies to promote integration of traditional knowledge and approaches within the mainstream health-care system.
Doug Kelly, chair of the council that governs the FNHA, believes this is the framework that would allow aboriginal communities to step up and take responsibility for child welfare without tearing down the system that is in place. But he says First Nations leaders first need to curb their anger.
"There are caregivers, there are family leaders, there are chiefs in council, there are parents looking to get their children back, all very upset with how the government of Canada and the government of British Columbia have not met their needs," he said. "I understand that frustration. Let's acknowledge our anger but let's not act in anger. Let's organize."
It took two years of consultation to create the FNHA. The organization – which receives almost half a billion dollars a year, mostly from the federal government – is founded on partnerships with Canada and British Columbia. All three parties have made a commitment to shared responsibility. "It eliminates fights about jurisdiction, it eliminates the blame game," Grand Chief Kelly said. "Instead, it requires all the parties to come to the table."
But there is plenty of blame going around now, a legacy of B.C.'s first attempt to hand off responsibility for child protection to aboriginal communities. When a teen in care of a delegated aboriginal authority, Alex Gervais, killed himself in 2015 while he was living in a hotel without supervision – after the province shut down his group home – Premier Christy Clark said the agency made a mistake and vowed it would face consequences.
Grand Chief Kelly, who is also president of the Sto:lo Tribal Council, founded that agency, and still seethes over the Premier's finger-pointing. "The responsibility for that death lies with the Premier," he said.
Getting past the recriminations that go all around, and the deep mistrust of the Ministry of Children and Families by aboriginal communities, will not be easy. But all three parties have a duty to try, because this is about protecting vulnerable kids, not politics.