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Bill C-92 - Third Reading - First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on debate at third reading of Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.

I confess, honourable senators, that despite my initial excitement upon hearing this legislation was in the works, I have some serious misgivings about its execution since studying the product before it went back to the House of Commons. Even with the amendments, there are still too many unanswered questions to this bill.

As most of you are well aware, the epidemic of Indigenous children being apprehended and removed from their families has been a serious risk for decades. There have been no tangible improvements to this stark reality, despite countless calls for corrective action to be taken. While I laud the government for their encourage in considering this issue, I feel that this bill may not produce the optimistic results they are hoping for.

Honourable senators, in the book entitled Native Children and the Child Welfare System published in 1983, T. Hunsley, the Executive Director for the Canadian Council on Social Development stated:

We have seen much progress during the last sixty years concerning the care of children unable to live with their own families. It has, however, become more and more evident that this progress has not benefited Native children and their families. . . . the questions are so complex that few people understand why or even how the system fails to fulfill its obligation to Native children. The CCSC is of the opinion that serious and immediate attention must be given to the shortcomings in the Canadian child welfare system and the way in which it affects native people’s.

Honourable senators, it has now been almost 100 years of apprehension under provincial jurisdictions. Over this time, these systems have continued to remove countless children from their families and their culture without ever addressing the issues that facilitate and perpetuate this cycle. Many of these children continue to live their lives in exile, not being able to reconcile with their families or their communities, nor being able to reconcile with other Canadians. Today, there are still no programs in place for young adults who have aged out of care. They have no safety net. The percentage of these youths who have experienced a juvenile detention centre is unknown. There are not adequate resources for this specific group of children.

According to a September 2018 report of the Manitoba Legislative Review Committee entitled Opportunities to Improve Outcomes for Children and Youth, the province of Manitoba saw an 85 per cent increase in the number of children in care over the past decade; 90 per cent of these children were Indigenous; 60 per cent were permanent wards, meaning they were under the permanent guardianship of a CFS agency, and the guardianship rights of their parents had been terminated.

Manitoba’s annual child welfare budget has almost tripled over the past 12 years to $514 million in 2016-17. Roughly, this equates to $46,800 per child in care. It should be noted that this figure does not include federal funding for on-reserve child and family services.

While Bill C-92 is sparse on details regarding funding, I can only hope that First Nations, Metis and Inuit in Manitoba will receive the same amount of funding that the province has been getting on this file. That would be a step toward equity.

Honourable senators, I would like to quote from this Manitoba report. It states:

Although the CFS system may be devolved on paper, meaningful devolution (transfer) of resources and authority to Indigenous governments and communities has not been a reality.

Honourable senators, provincial jurisdiction over child welfare is, quite frankly, a cash cow for the province. At the end of the day, it is not in their best economic interest to simply relinquish control of child welfare. While the province is highly motivated to retain control, Bill C-92 has no mechanism through which the province must act cooperatively and in good faith with Indigenous communities.

We have been told in committee that there is “. . . a one-year period. But if an agreement is reached before then, then the law gets to be federal law and has paramountcy. They don’t have to wait for the one year if they have an agreement with the province or territory.” There was no mention of a requirement for meetings to take place between the provinces and the federal governments about this transfer of power.

There is also no mechanism if the Indigenous group is unable to get the province to the table in the one year. Does that mean they will have to wait another year to do the transfer, and who will facilitate this move if you’re forcing the province to the table? Who makes the final decision that the Indigenous group is ready to transfer in this situation and who maintains the liability?

Honourable senators, as I am here to represent my region and my province, I would like to inform you of the situation in Manitoba, where the child welfare system and apprehension of Indigenous children is at a crescendo.

The AMC, with whom I have worked closely on this piece of legislation, has indicated time and again of their inability to get the province to the table to discuss this transfer of authority. The unwillingness of the province to discuss this matter while they continue to make money off the backs of First Nations children has been one of the main reasons why the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs does not support this bill. They sought confirmation that the bill would not further entrench provincial jurisdiction over Indigenous governing bodies but has not received an answer.

It should be noted, honourable senators, that Manitoba First Nations are in a position of leadership when it comes to addressing this issue.

Senator McPhedran spoke about the MOU. This MOU saw the federal government give AMC $1 million. I am proud to announce that this legislation is completed. It is entitled the Bringing Our Children Home Act.

The Women’s Council at AMC has done tremendous work on this act and has worked with all five tribes in Manitoba to format this act in each of their languages. Yet, a serious concern exists of Western laws continuing to colonialize and override Indigenous governance, despite the fact that AMC is prepared to move forward on this file through their own initiative and legislation.

As was noted by one of the advisers during clause-by-clause consideration, “This affirms a right of inherent to self-government.” That is what it said.

Is this self-government confined to child welfare legislation, or is this a self-government agreement? How many of the self-government agreements put in place have worked or not worked? What was learned about the self-government agreements that didn’t work and what will be the residual role of the federal government? What about outstanding land claims? There are more questions than answers.

Honourable senators, AMC had initially requested an opt-out clause in this legislation, citing the progress they have made under the aforementioned MOU as well as the historic and sustained unwillingness of the province to positively work together. However, I found out, when we did the clause-by-clause study of this bill, that such an option was never realistically available.

First Nations, Metis and Inuit are forced to stay within the confines of this bill or else they will be left in limbo and never able to opt in. This may be a different story if there is a pending self-government agreement, but for those not in that position, this is a risky endeavour they would be forced to face through the rejection of this legislation.

As Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, astutely notes in her op-ed of June 6:

Bill C-92 offers Indigenous children a colonial Faustian bargain: Accept the flawed bill in its current state or get nothing.

Bill C-92 has caused much division in First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities and institutions. This is largely due to the fact that these three groups have distinctly different histories, realities and needs. For a government that prides itself on taking a distinctions-based approach to Indigenous issues, I am disappointed that such an important piece of legislation is done through a pan-Indigenous approach. What will work for First Nations may not work for other First Nations, Inuit or Metis.

I know that a one-size-fits-all prescription will be ineffective in combatting such deep-rooted and historic problems of these three groups, each with their distinct and different cultures within themselves. Moreover, a pan-Indigenous model would not be able to take into account the uniqueness of historical and current experiences of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples to ensure that funding would be equitable. If the appropriate funding is not given, it will set everyone up to fail and result in each group being worse off than they are now.

Honourable colleagues, part of the reason that the current and past systems have been unable to make progress in child welfare is that they did not address the social determinants of health and their impact on First Nations, Metis and Inuit lives.

If your family cannot provide the basic necessities and are combatting health issues such as addiction and depression, which are a result of oppression, how can their situation improve if they are not given the adequate and holistic resources to do so?

It is worth noting that social determinants of health like housing, employment, food security, mental health therapy, justice and so on, which are beyond the scope of this bill, are vitally important in mitigating this cycle of child apprehension.

There has been no mention of coordination between the different federal departments and how they would coordinate the services required for each community to accommodate this bill.

There are too many unanswered questions for me and for the many women whose voices I bring to this floor, and it’s women from across Canada.

I will be voting against Bill C-92.

I want to thank Cora Morgan, the Family Advocate Office, AMC Women’s Council, AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and all the chiefs in Manitoba for all their hard work through this process. Ki na nas ko mi ti na wow for your advocacy, passion and determination. Thank you.

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