Skip to main content
child-welfare system

Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott stands during Question Period in the House of Commons.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal Minister of Indigenous Services says the next budget will contain additional money to pay for social supports that will allow more children from troubled First Nations families to stay in their communities and out of foster care.

Two years after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by providing less money for welfare services on reserves than is available elsewhere in Canada, the Indigenous child-welfare system remains "a humanitarian crisis," Jane Philpott told reporters on Tuesday.

The tribunal ordered the government in January, 2016, to end the inequality. But, on multiple occasions since that ruling, it has said Ottawa is not doing enough to meet its demands.

Dr. Philpott told reporters the government is currently going through the tribunal's orders to determine how much money will be required for full compliance. And, she said, she has communicated with the other parties to the ruling including the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario and Amnesty International.

"I have made it very clear to them that we will have additional investments in Budget 2018," Dr. Philpott said. "The Finance Minister and I have had that conversation and we can anticipate those announcements to be made clear at the time of the budget," which is expected in February or March.

On Thursday and Friday of this week, Dr. Philpott will convene what she calls an "emergency meeting" with Indigenous representatives and experts as well as provincial and territorial leaders to discuss the state of child and family services.

What has become clear during her discussions to date, she said, is that there needs to be more of a focus on preventing children from being removed from their communities when their families are going through tough times.

The latest survey from Statistics Canada found that, while less than 8 per cent of all Canadian children aged four and under are Indigenous, they accounted for 51.2 per cent of preschoolers in foster care in 2016. That was up more than 2 percentage points from 2011.

At the moment, the minister said, funding is allocated according to how many children are placed in care, which provides an incentive to remove children from their homes. So the question to be asked, Dr. Philpott said, is "are there ways that aunties or grandmas or kinship care systems can be supported so that children can stay in their communities and get the support that they need?"

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society who launched the human-rights action against the government, said "what we need to see is action at the level of children."

The tribunal said two years ago the government needed to spend more on preventing children from being removed from their homes, Ms. Blackstock said. If that is now going to happen, she said, "I will be very happy," but the government must also turn its attention to all of the other inequities that exist between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada.

Dr. Philpott offered reporters a frank assessment of challenges faced by many Indigenous communities including poor health outcomes, insufficient access to clean water, underfunded educational systems and inadequate infrastructure, including severely overcrowded housing.

The ultimate goal of her department, she said, is its own obsolescence – something that would come when Indigenous communities are responsible for providing their own programs, including health, education and social services, with block funding from the government.

"Indigenous peoples want and need control over their lives," Dr. Philpott said, "and, therefore, you will see a focus on self-determination as part of the priority in each of these areas."

Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde says there is a gap in services and programs for Indigenous children on reserves that needs to be immediately addressed.

The Canadian Press

Interact with The Globe