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Child welfare crisis 'most serious issue that we face' in Manitoba, families minister says at summit

In communities that struggle to access affordable housing, Indigenous kids can be kept from their families because they don't have their own bedroom, according to the chief of a Manitoba First Nation.

Indigenous leaders, province spoke at 1st of series of meetings to discuss reform

Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels, left, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Jim Bear, centre, and Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding, right, addressed media on the second day of a two-day summit meeting to talk about reform to the province's child welfare system. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

In communities that struggle to access affordable housing, Chief Jim Bear says Indigenous kids can be kept from their families simply because they don't have their own bedroom.

The Brokenhead Ojibway Nation chief said rules like that are examples of systemic discrimination in Manitoba's child welfare laws and show why the province needs to consult Indigenous leadership before changing them.

"The numbers [of kids in care] exceed 10,000. It has been a disaster," said Bear. Fixing that, he says, will require "a well-planned initiative and it has to be under our authority. It has to be community driven."

Bear, Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels and Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding addressed media on Thursday, the second day of a two-day summit discussing community-led reforms to Child and Family Services.

Nearly 11,000 children are in care in Manitoba, according to the most recent numbers from the province — the highest rate in the country. Roughly 90 per cent of them are Indigenous, despite the fact Indigenous people account for 17 per cent of Manitoba's population.

Over the past decade, the number of Manitoba children in care has increased by 85 per cent and the number of days those kids are in care has jumped by 73 per cent.

This week's summit will be followed by similar consultation with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the Manitoba Metis Federation, Fielding said. Any legislative changes will be looked at by a seven-person review committee that includes representatives from the Southern Chiefs' Organization, MKO, the Metis Federation and other community organizations.

Fielding said he hopes that process will be done by the end of March.

"From a provincial government point of view, we want to make sure our alignment in terms of how we address the crisis that we see in the child welfare system is addressed," Fielding said.

"As a government, this, I think, is the most serious issue that we face as a province."

Better housing, funding needed: SCO

The Progressive Conservative government promised a complete overhaul of the legislation governing Manitoba's child welfare system in October, including proposals for block funding to welfare agencies and government subsidies to promote permanent legal guardianship.

The latter proposition was denounced by Cora Morgan, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs First Nations family advocate, as creating potential to place Indigenous kids in non-Indigenous families permanently, instead of trying to keep families together — which SCO Grand Chief Daniels said is the ultimate goal of reform.

Fielding said no legislation will be introduced until consultations are complete.

"This isn't something that was added. This was always part of the process," Fielding said of the summit. "What the province introduced is our overarching principles of what we think makes a difference."

Fielding said he and other leaders will have an emergency meeting with the federal government later this month, and this week's summit was in part a message to Ottawa.

"We also think that the federal government has a part to play in this. We're interested to hear what the federal government has to say about it."

It's important for the province, feds and Indigenous leadership to align their priorities, Fielding said.

"We know that housing, things like child care, things like employment services to get people jobs, are so important to get people out of the child welfare system," he said.

"So anytime we can align our priorities with the federal government and with Indigenous leaderships, that's something we're interested in discussions on."

Grand Chief Daniels said specifically, he wants to see a plan for better housing.

"We need money for our housing," Daniels said.

"We could talk about bringing our children home all day but what we need to do is have an actual timeline. We have to have identified resources. We have to have the people in place."

Daniels said this week's summit was intended to help set out a comprehensive strategy for Manitoba communities.

"We have to identify exactly what resources are available, what sort of infrastructure are we talking about in our communities, and then we also have to talk about who's going to take care of our children," he said.

"Because the plan is really to bring our children home, right, over the long-term."