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Ottawa to begin fully funding Indigenous child-welfare agencies

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott speaks with reporters in Ottawa in November, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Bill Yoachim was among 105 managers of Indigenous child welfare agencies across Canada to receive a letter on Thursday from Ottawa containing a commitment to fund programs to keep families together.

The letter is part of Ottawa's response to an order from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to end the discrimination that puts too many First Nations children in government care.

The money is meant "to meet the best interests and needs of First Nations children and families, in as flexible a way as possible, and to remove any incentive to taking First Nations children into care," the letter says.

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"It's really uplifting news and long overdue," said Mr. Yoachim, executive director of Kw'umut Lelum Child and Family Services on Vancouver Island. "I really hope [new funding] doesn't get bogged down in bureaucracy and let's put the money where it should be – with the people who are doing the work."

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued its order on Thursday, saying Ottawa was not complying with a 2016 ruling that found it discriminates against Indigenous children by underfunding child welfare services.

In a statement, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott on Thursday said the letters to First Nations agencies were being sent to inform them that Ottawa would immediately begin to cover agencies' actual costs for prevention, intake and investigation, along with legal fees and building repairs, with reimbursement retroactive to Jan. 26, 2016.

"It's significant on a number of fronts ... but practically, what it means, is resources for family support, family preservation, prevention – the types of things that [agencies] have been crying out for," said Bernard Richard, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth.

Up to now, funding models offered virtually no money for prevention – through measures such as family counselling – but did provide funds and resources if children were put into care, he added.

"So any director of an agency would know if you wanted to provide services, and have those services paid for, you had to take a child into care. And so that was the incentive for taking children into care – the costs were covered. But costs for keeping families together … there was no budget for that," Mr. Richard said.

Indigenous children make up about seven per cent of Canadian children under the age of 15, but account for more than half the number of children in foster care.

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The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a human-rights complaint against the federal government in 2007. Since the ruling in 2016, the tribunal has issued four compliance orders, including the one on Thursday.

The order said the government had taken some action to address the 2016 ruling, but not enough.

Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the child and family caring society, said it would take time to see effects of the new funding.

The next step, she said, would be for Ottawa to amend its policies to allow direct funding to First Nations child welfare agencies when they are governed by laws passed by First Nations, rather than provincial policies.

Currently, child welfare agencies are funded when they comply directly with legislation in their provinces.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s former representative for children and youth, welcomed Ottawa's commitment but sounded a note of caution, saying accountability should be built into any new approach.

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"Without a clear framework, with outcomes and co-ordinated efforts to plan, monitor and deliver excellent services, the area of Indigenous child and family services will have deep vulnerabilities," she said in an e-mail.

"New legislation and policy is required to build this and while funding is a critical component, lives only change when those funds translate to needed services on the ground for children and families."

Mr. Yoachim expects Kw'umut Lelem will use additional funds for services such as cultural programming and health and wellness for families.

"In child welfare, unfortunately, sometimes the parents are neglected from the conversation – we'll create programming and parenting programing for parents who are struggling," he said. "Let's get these parents healthy and kids back with their parents, where they should be."

With a report from Canadian Press

At a Friday meeting, ministers Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett called on welfare agencies to look for alternatives to removing kids from Indigenous communities. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde says changes need to be swift. The Canadian Press
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