Of all the challenges before the federal government, none may be more fraught than its decision to devolve trust for native child welfare to Indigenous communities.
It's a fundamental aspect of an overarching vision outlined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons this week to redraft the relationship the country has with its aboriginal peoples, creating a new legal framework recognized in the Constitution that creates a true self-governance model.
It will not be an easy journey, nor one that is made smoother simply with more dollars.
Jane Philpott, the Minister of Indigenous Services, has been given the job of solving one of the country's more intractable problems: the high apprehension rate of native children in Canada. The statistics are mind-numbing. While less than 8 per cent of children aged four and under in Canada are Indigenous, they account for more than 50 per cent of all children that age who are in foster care. In Manitoba, that number jumps to an astounding 90 per cent.
The Minister has called it a "humanitarian catastrophe" and she is not wrong. But anyone who thinks that by relieving governmental authorities of this obligation the problem will simply go away is sadly mistaken.
The B.C. government tried this in the early 2000s. In fact, it was only too happy to heed the call by First Nations to cede jurisdiction over this area to them. But a decade later, the province's Representative for Children and Youth of the day figured something was amiss. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said she kept getting daily phone calls from kids in native communities who were in obvious distress and pleading for help.
She decided to audit how the government's plan had worked during the period from roughly 2002 to 2012. Her findings, published in 2013, helped comprise one of the most disconcerting reports she issued in her decade-long stint on the job.
What she discovered was tens of millions of dollars in federal and provincial funding was handed over to more than 20 delegated aboriginal child-welfare agencies without a single child being served. Her investigation suggested there wasn't nearly enough oversight of the more than $66-million that went to these organizations. In most cases, she surmised, the money simply went into people's pockets.
In a stinging summation that was a trademark of all of her work, Ms. Turpel-Lafond offered the view that the B.C. government's decision to yield oversight of this critical function to ill-prepared Indigenous communities was a reckless, self-serving mistake.
"Senior bureaucrats and others must return to a model of public service and accountability that permits good collaboration but doesn't abdicate control or send a massive chunk of the budget out to a sector that will provide no service but appears to make everyone feel good or provides an illusion of progress where there is none."
Her investigators found that many children were not getting the care and protection that were needed, and were instead subjected to rampant sexual and physical abuse and general neglect by parents with serious drug, alcohol and mental-health issues.
This is all to say that Ms. Philpott could perhaps benefit from a long sit-down with Ms. Turpel-Lafond to talk about her findings and what she thinks might be done differently as Ottawa prepares to embark on a more ambitious version of B.C.'s failed experiment. Some Indigenous leaders are already calling for more money to facilitate the transition of responsibility. While underfunding certainly may be a problem in some areas, I'm not sure handing over tens of millions of dollars with no strings attached is the solution.
The most important thing is ensuring Indigenous communities are prepared to take on this role. Are there trained care-providers and the appropriate services in place to deal with the many, complex issues that lead to the lives of native children being imperilled? Most often, it's the parents who need the most attention.
Also, there have to be dispassionate social workers available who decide where children go if they have to be removed from the home. Too often we see kids handed over to relatives who are equally unfit to provide for them.
There is little question that the current situation is untenable. It has to change. And aboriginal communities in Canada need to drive that change. But it can't just be change for change sake, or we risk perpetuating our failure to protect our most vulnerable people.