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AFN Chief calls on First Nations to create their own child-welfare legislation

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, addresses Indigenous leaders at a two-day emergency meeting on Indigenous Child and Family Services in Ottawa, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018.

Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde is urging First Nations across Canada to create their own child-welfare legislation – something the federal government says it supports – to prevent more Indigenous children from entering foster care.

Mr. Bellegarde made his plea at an emergency meeting on child welfare in Ottawa on Thursday. Canada has been grappling with systemic issues within its Indigenous child-welfare programs, which the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal says have been discriminating against First Nations children by providing less money for services on reserves than elsewhere in the country.

"As First Nations governments, we have the inherent right to self-determination," Mr. Bellegarde told reporters at the two-day meeting. "If you don't want delegated authority from the provincial Child and Family Services Act [in Ontario], create your own act. And then you occupy the field. And then that's where you can incorporate culturally appropriate services and programs."

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Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said the federal government "absolutely" supports First Nations who want to administer their own child-welfare services. She pointed to Splatsin First Nation in British Columbia, which she said has effectively established a bylaw outlining its jurisdiction over child welfare.

Two years after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal criticized the federal government, the Indigenous child-welfare system remains "a humanitarian crisis," Dr. Philpott said. The tribunal ordered the government to end the inequality – and it has said on multiple occasions since that Ottawa is not doing enough to meet its demands.

Dr. Philpott said the government is aware that federal funding "incentivizes" the removal of Indigenous children from troubled households, instead of preventing family problems in the first place.

She said the 2018 budget – to be tabled in the spring – will contain additional money for social supports that will allow more children from troubled First Nations families to stay in their communities and out of foster care. She added the government is still trying to determine how much money is required in order to fully comply with the tribunal's orders.

"Anything that we hear in the coming days will be helpful to us in terms of determining not only the dollar amount but … how and where the dollars flow," Dr. Philpott said.

Following the tribunal's January, 2016, ruling, advocates said at least $155-million was needed to bring an immediate end to years of discrimination against Indigenous children.

The NDP asked the Parliamentary Budget Officer on Thursday to undertake a study to determine how much is required to "close the gap and end the discrimination against Indigenous children and families."

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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. Dr. Philpott said the situation might be even worse than previously thought, given a lack of available data.

"I don't believe anyone actually knows how many Indigenous children are in care across the country. No one has good data about the rates of apprehension, where those children are going and why."

Indigenous leaders welcomed Dr. Philpott's commitments on Thursday, but said the way forward is about more than money.

"I still think we struggle with the basic level of respect for Indigenous people in this country, in relation to non-Indigenous people, in the way in which funding happens, the way in which decisions are made and the way in which partnerships are forged between public governments," Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed said.

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