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Politics Liberals try to fend off criticism over First Nations child welfare, vow talks

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 25, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal Liberals attempted Thursday to fend off criticism of their response to a landmark human rights tribunal decision by announcing talks about First Nations child welfare.

A new special representative will lead national discussions on the reform of First Nations child welfare services, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said before the start of a Commons debate on an NDP motion about the delivery of care on reserves.

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux — a Lakehead University professor — will advise the government as it works with provinces, territories and child welfare agencies on an overhaul of the system, Bennett said.

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"Our job now is to engage with the provinces and territories to change the way the services are delivered," Bennett said outside the Commons.

There are more children in care today than at the height of residential schools, she added.

"That has to stop and that will only stop by engaging with the provinces and territories and the agencies that deliver those services and we are ... therefore committed to do that."

Late Wednesday, the Manitoba legislature passed a motion condemning the federal government for its response to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling.

"I say that Manitoba's got to sit down with us and fix the system," Bennett said Thursday in response.

Last January, the tribunal found that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children in its delivery of child welfare services.

It has since issued two compliance orders urging the Liberals to act.

The federal NDP motion, which will face a vote on Tuesday, calls for the government to comply with the ruling — first with an immediate $155-million investment, then with a funding plan for future years.

It also calls on the government to adopt Jordan's Principle, which says no aboriginal child should suffer denial, delay or disruption of health services available to other children simply because of jurisdictional feuds.

The principle is named for Jordan Anderson — a Cree boy from Norway House, Man. who died in hospital in 2005 after jurisdictional disagreements kept him from spending his last years in home care.

Implementing the tribunal's historic decision should not be a matter of consultation because it is legally binding, Charlie Angus, the NDP indigenous affairs critic, said at the onset of Thursday's debate.

"There is a complete discrepancy between the services that children on reserve are treated to and children off reserve," Angus said. "That's why it is systemic, racist discrimination."

The federal government is only offering incremental change, he added.

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"I am sorry, but the communities we represent should not have to crawl and fight for inches of ground when children are suffering, when children are being denied their greatest potential."

The discussions announced Thursday do not simply involve a bunch of bureaucrats talking, said Margaret Buist, director general of the child and family services branch at the Indigenous Affairs Department.

"It's a bunch of bureaucrats listening to the people who provide this service as to how best to reform the program so as not to discriminate, but more importantly, how best to inform the program so that First Nation children and families are getting the service that they need," she said during a briefing.

First Nations child advocate Cindy Blackstock, who spent nine years fighting the government prior to the tribunal's ruling, is deeply critical of the level of federal funding for child welfare services.

Her calculations peg the need at more than $200 million this year while the government's budget earmarked $71 million for immediate relief.

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