Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott is calling for an emergency meeting early next year on Aboriginal child welfare, declaring that the current situation resembles the horrors of Canada's residential school system that forcibly removed young Indigenous people from their families and communities.
Philpott, who fired off a letter this week to her provincial and territorial counterparts requesting their attendance at the meeting, said the rate at which Canada is apprehending Indigenous kids is among the highest in the world.
"To me, this is arguably the most pressing priority of my new department," Philpott said in an interview.
There is no cohesive plan to examine how to get children back into Indigenous communities, she said, suggesting it is necessary to get everyone together who has a role to play, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders, child and family services agencies and groups such as the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
The society's executive director, Cindy Blackstock, along with the Assembly of First Nations, has been engaged in a battle spanning more than a decade on the underfunding on child welfare services for First Nations children.
The AFN held a "day of action" on Thursday, including a demonstration on Parliament Hill, to urge Ottawa to "immediately and fully implement" a 2016 decision from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal stemming from this fight.
"There is still ... there's no question, a gap in funding levels," AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said at a press conference following the rally. "We are going to keep coming back to that."
Bellegarde, who welcomed next year's emergency meeting on child welfare, also pointed to an NDP motion that passed unanimously in the House of Commons one year ago, calling for an immediate injection of $155 million to ensure the government complies with the tribunal's findings.
While the provinces and territories have a role to play, he stressed that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure adequate resources for children on reserve.
Philpott said the government is working to comply with the tribunal findings but conceded Ottawa has a "huge responsibility" to tackle outstanding problems with Indigenous child welfare.
Still, she insisted Ottawa is working to turn the tide.
"We know that the federal government needs to step up and be a real partner in this work," Philpott said in the letter to the provinces and territories.
"It is time that we do more and that we do it faster."
While lots of works remains to be done, Philpott has pointed out that the government has approved more than 19,700 cases since 2016 under what's known as Jordan's principle — a policy aimed at ensuring First Nations children can get services without getting caught in red tape.
Philpott said she spoke last week with Sen. Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's examination into the residential school legacy. He told her it's no coincidence provinces with the highest rates of children in foster care generally are the same provinces that had the highest rates of residential schools.
Cora Morgan, a family advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Thursday the upcoming emergency meeting will be critically important, noting that the vast majority of children in the foster system in her province are Indigenous.
"We have to debunk that mainstream understanding that when these children are taken they are put into these loving, caring environments," she said. "That's far from the reality ... All these children want to go home."