Some Manitoba First Nations say they are worried some of the reforms planned for the province's troubled child-welfare system could worsen the problem of having aboriginal children raised in non-Indigenous homes.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says government plans to expand subsidies to include people seeking permanent guardianship of foster children will only make it faster and easier for kids to be taken from their parents forever.
"This is putting children at risk of being in non-Indigenous homes permanently," said Cora Morgan, the assembly's First Nations family advocate.
"When probably close to 90 per cent of our children are placed in non-Indigenous homes, and they're not having access to culturally appropriate services or meaningful connections to culture and identity, then I have trouble with that."
Indigenous people make up 17 per cent of Manitoba's population, but almost 90 per cent of the 10,700 children in government care are aboriginal.
First Nations leaders have long said the system is set up to encourage the seizure of children, because agencies are paid partly based on how many kids they care for.
The Progressive Conservative government, elected in 2016, has promised reforms but has yet to release details.
Families Minister Scott Fielding said legislation will be introduced soon to offer the same kind of subsidies foster parents have to people who seek permanent guardianship. The aim is to give kids a more stable environment rather than have them bouncing between temporary foster homes.
Morgan is worried the subsidies will encourage the current majority of non-Indigenous foster parents to seek permanent care of their charges. Fielding said his goal is to entice more family members who may not otherwise be able to afford to take care of the children.
"We absolutely want more permanent guardianship, and the vast majority of people who take on permanent guardianship is a family member," he said.
Not providing subsidies to permanent guardians in Manitoba means that "for a lot of people that may take on someone, that is a barrier to basically taking on a lifelong commitment."
Fielding said courts are already required under law to favour family members in awarding permanent guardianship, so the expanded subsidies should make it more possible that children end up in the culture and language to which they are accustomed.
Fielding is also working on other changes first announced last month, including the launch of customary care, which allows First Nations children to stay in their community in the care of extended family and community leaders.
The government has also promised to focus more on preventative supports for families to help them before they face apprehension.
A public inquiry report released in 2013 into the death of Phoenix Sinclair urged the government to address the fast-rising number of Indigenous children being taken from their parents.
Two years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report called on all governments to provide adequate resources to keep Indigenous families together and, when children are apprehended, ensure they are placed with families where they can maintain ties to their language and culture.