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Editorials Globe editorial: It’s time to let Indigenous communities manage native child welfare

Here are some damning statistics that do not get talked about enough in this country.

Barely eight per cent of children aged four and under in Canada are Indigenous, yet they account for half of all children of that age in foster care. In Manitoba, 10,000 of the 11,000 children in foster care are native, according to Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott. Some of them were apprehended by child welfare workers as soon as they were born, right in the hospital.

But even that is not the worst of it. "No one actually knows how many Indigenous children are in care across the country," Dr. Philpott said in January. "No one has good data about the rates of apprehension, where those children are going and why."

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That is a terrible indictment of Canada. Dr. Philpott has correctly described the situation as a "humanitarian catastrophe" – one whose long-term consequences will be all too familiar to Canadians.

"This is very much reminiscent of residential school systems where children are being scooped up from their homes, taken away from their families," she said in an interview last fall. "We will pay the price for this for generations to come."

Put another way, the deliberate destruction of Indigenous families that occurred under the residential school system is being repeated, only this time to protect children from the poverty and social dysfunction that was wrought by the residential schools, and by Ottawa's poor administration of Indigenous services. It's a vicious circle that has to end.

Ottawa is trying. Last week, in response to a 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that said the federal government's chronic underfunding of native child welfare services amounted to discrimination, Ottawa said it would immediately begin to cover all the costs incurred by 105 Indigenous child welfare agencies, retroactive to last January.

Those agencies will still have to follow provincial or federal rules, however. And that's another issue.

Dr. Philpott has said she is supportive of a proposal from the Assembly of First Nations calling on native communities to draw up their own child-welfare legislation. This could be a first step toward eventually giving more Indigenous groups full control over foster services.

"Then you occupy the field. And then that's where you can incorporate culturally appropriate services and programs," AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde said in January.

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As it happens, the Quebec government signed off on a version of the idea late last month.

The province gave full autonomy over child welfare to the Atikamekw Nation, located in the central part of the province. The stated aim is to help keep Atikamekw foster children in their own community.

At this point, that seems like the best way forward. Keeping native children close to their communities and their kin, and out of the hands of an underfunded system that can't even provide proper data on their numbers, seems like the best bet for ending a century-old vicious circle.

As well, Dr. Philpott said last month that current federal funding "incentivizes" the removal of children from Indigenous homes.

There will be roadblocks. At a recent emergency meeting of aboriginal, federal and provincial leaders, Manitoba's Minister of Families, Scott Fielding, staked out familiar turf. "This can't be a process driven by Ontario or Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats," he said.

We need to get past this jurisdictional bickering.

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Perhaps rather than waiting for a federal-provincial consensus to emerge on the question, Ottawa should start funding aboriginal communities who either have, or are in the midst of developing, their own child-welfare laws.

As aboriginal child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock says, "Fix it now. We can always argue later."

Of course, reforming child welfare is just the start. Knowing that children are safe and, wherever possible, living in their home community are minimum standards that shouldn't take years to meet.

But it is only one of many needed fixes. Too many remote reserves still lack clean drinking water, adequate food and decent housing, for instance.

Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley called the Atikamekw pact a step toward reconciliation. Implicit in the assertion is that more will follow.

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