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Bill C-92 - Message from the House of Commons

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to the message from the House of Commons on Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.

I would first like to express my dismay in only learning this morning that debate would begin and end on this important message today. This process is so quick that the item will likely pass without ever having made it onto the Order Paper. This bill has caused much anguish to me, and it also has created division among Indigenous people.

Colleagues, I cannot stress enough the importance of this piece of legislation and the impact it will have on the lives of countless Indigenous children and their families. I would like to qualify that statement by saying that this impact will not necessarily be as constructive, helpful and positive as some would have you believe. As I wouldn’t necessarily classify debate on this piece of critical legislation as fulsome, I feel it important to reiterate and further supplement the concerns that I brought forward at third reading on this bill.

As an Indigenous senator and mother from Manitoba, I have an extremely strong investment in ensuring that this is done right. As many of you know, Manitoba is an outlier in terms of the scope and breadth of the impact that child apprehension has on First Nations. In my first speech, I said that Manitoba has the highest rate of children in care among Canadian provinces. Almost 90 per cent of children in care are Indigenous, yet only 17 per cent of Manitoba’s population is Indigenous. So when I look at these statistics and see that 60 per cent of children in care are permanent wards, it causes me concern about where we’re going.

First Nations communities have been in a state of devolution for the last 10 to 15 years with the Province of Manitoba. It was done under the guidance of provincial law and provincial policies, but apprehensions still increased.

Honourable senators, it comes as no surprise that children who grow up in care have significantly worse life outcomes as adults. They encounter high rates of unemployment, contact with the justice system and homelessness. It should be noted that negative impacts as a result of child apprehension are also inflicted on the mothers of these children. It is shown that these women see a significant deterioration in their health and social situation after apprehension, such as increased rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Honourable senators, a few weeks ago there was a news release in Manitoba regarding the abuse of children in care on one of the northern Manitoba reserves. This child care was under provincial jurisdiction, policy and instruments. It was not a First Nation child and family. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have invested a great deal of time and resources into the CFS jurisdiction and legislation. They are widely recognized as being the furthest ahead in preparedness and movement on this file. The fear is that the work done as a direct result of the MOU with Canada will be for naught.

I feel it prudent to inform honourable senators that, only this morning, a meeting took place between Senator McPhedran, Grand Chief Dumas, Minister O’Regan, Parliamentary Secretary Dan Vandal, and a number of various staff members and myself. That meeting was held solely to discuss Bill C-92, its impact on Manitoba and AMC, and the path forward.

At the outset of the meeting, the minister began by indicating that the MOU that Canada had entered into with AMC would not be recognized under clause 3 of this bill. For reference, clause 3 speaks of upholding existing agreements. It had previously been indicated in this chamber that the MOU would have standing and would be protected by this section of the bill. The minister himself has confirmed that this is not so, as this MOU doesn’t have “the force of law.” That is a concept that is found in other accords, like self-government agreements, for example.

That was very troubling news to receive as it now seems as if the good work that Manitoba First Nations have done on this file could be lost.

Colleagues, the catch here is that there are several provinces that have shown zero interest in working with First Nations communities on transferring this authority. I have alluded to this in my third reading speech where I referenced the proverbial cash cow in play as provinces make money through apprehending our children as their wards.

I can attest that the Manitoba government — and I spoke to the minister on Tuesday — was never approached by the federal government for a coordination agreement. The minister also advised me that she has no knowledge of any plans of transferring the program.

In our meeting with Minister O’Regan today, we were told that AMC need not worry. After 12 months, their law will supersede all others. However, the biggest issue is one that the minister and his staff were unable to answer: What happens if the province isn’t willing to facilitate this transfer of authority?

Honourable senators, it is an undeniable truth that this legislation cannot move forward if the province does not share their data and information with Indigenous communities to indicate how many children are in care and whose children they are. We need that through the disclosure of the information which falls under provincial law and regulation. Although clauses 28 and 30 cover this reference agreement and information sharing, it is at the will of the province whether they choose to do so.

This morning, the minister confirmed that this bill cannot force disclosure of this information. Due to jurisdictional boundaries, Bill C-92 cannot enter into the provincial arena and force them to cooperate. Without a mechanism to facilitate the sharing of this information, the provinces that do not wish to be party to this transfer of authority essentially have the ultimate trump card. This morning, he said that Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were the provinces of concern.

Without this information, the concept of “bringing our children home,” which AMC has aptly named their legislation, will be lost.

Colleagues, it has also been incorrectly indicated that there were fractures and dissent among Manitoba First Nations with regard to this piece of legislation. That was largely due to the fact that a resolution passed by the Southern Chiefs Organization in Manitoba had been mischaracterized as supporting Bill C-92. In reality, this resolution merely stated that the SCO would collaborate with any southern First Nation who chose to pursue an agreement through this bill. This is certainly not to be misconstrued as being in support of the bill itself.

The AMC is the authoritative voice when it comes to Manitoba First Nations as they are the political body that speaks on behalf of Manitoba First Nations chiefs. The SCO and MKO conversely are administrative bodies that were created by AMC to exist in the political sphere. It’s important to understand the structure and dynamic.

Colleagues, during our meeting today, Minister O’Regan pointed to the six points of action that the government committed to on this file. One of these points states that their goal of:

 . . . supporting communities to draw down jurisdiction and explore the potential for co-developed federal child welfare legislation . . .

Honourable senators, to use the words of the minister: Local problems are best solved by local solutions.

There can be no more local solution than the Bringing Our Children Home Act, as developed by AMC for Manitoba First Nations. Yet it is my belief that the shortcomings found through this legislation will make it so that First Nations in Manitoba will not and cannot draw down their jurisdiction on child and family services so long as they have an unwilling partner in the province.

I wanted to end by saying that many of my questions remained unanswered at the meeting this morning. I asked the minister, why did this happen? Why wasn’t there more discussion on how we could proceed to make this workable?

I believe that, as senators, we need to ensure that, in the future, bills regarding First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples are given more debate and consideration. We deserve better. Thank you.

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