Métis children to be included under proposed Manitoba law to keep Indigenous kids in care in their communities

The Manitoba government has introduced legislation it says will help children in care keep their Indigenous customs and family connections.

'Children who have a foundation of their culture do a lot better': SCO Grand Chief

There are about 11,000 children in care in Manitoba and about 90 per cent are Indigenous. (Shutterstock/Costea Andrea M)

The Manitoba Metis Federation is commending the province on new legislation that would see Indigenous and Metis communities play a role in caring for kids in the child welfare system.

Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding introduced the amendments to the Child and Family Services Act on Monday. The customary care bill would allow kids to stay in their communities and provide supports for extended family members to care for them there.

"We can now use resources to help our family," said David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation.

Chartrand said that in the past, CFS wouldn't provide financial assistance to extended family members looking after children.

Chartrand estimates approximately 1,000 of the 11,000 kids in care in Manitoba are Métis.

Changes include customary care

The bill amends the Child and Family Services Act to include the customary care model, which allows children to stay within their community under the guidance of extended family and community leaders.

The agency in charge of child and family services in the area will work with parents or guardians to create a customary care agreement, where parental rights aren't lost. The child's Indigenous community is also notified and, in certain cases, will play a role in placing the child and customizing their care plan.

"Each individual community is very much different, so it will take into consideration Aboriginal culture, tradition and heritage into the decision-making process," Fielding explained.

The caregiver and care home will have to meet current safety standards, he added.

Not all Indigenous leaders support the new bill. 

"I'm disappointed that the province has rushed to pass this legislation," said Arlen Dumas, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Dumas said AMC sent the province a cease and desist letter in order to continue their discussion with the federal government, but said their letter was ignored. 

"The chiefs of the assembly have told the province that they need to hold off on any changes that they that they are prescribing to us. They know we have signed off on an MOU with the federal government in an attempt to bolster our jurisdiction over our children and make a change to the status quo in a meaningful way," said Dumas.

Dumas says First Nations leaders signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government in December and wanted a chance to talk to the feds before the province made any changes to child welfare legislation in Manitoba.

"They've come up with their own concepts that they actually have not asked our opinion on it. They've essentially said we're doing these things and that's what's going to happen," said Dumas.

PC bill includes Métis

The model was promised by the former NDP government and was announced by the Progressive Conservatives in October as part of a larger overhaul of the child-welfare system. Provisions for Métis communities were not included under the original bill, but are in the bill proposed by the current government.

"It's at least a good start to finally recognizing the Métis government. To really advocate for the place to go, that is to have discussions and dialogue of the issues that are affecting our children or our families," said Chartrand. 

Chartrand said he lobbied the province to make another change to help kids and families in need. He said in the past, single mothers who voluntarily placed their kids in care would lose their social housing when their children left the home, but not anymore.

"We got Fielding to change that...He should be commended on that," said Chartrand. "The parent will not be punished for trying to get help."

There are about 11,000 children in care in Manitoba and about 90 per cent are Indigenous. Fielding said the new legislation is a historic step toward supporting children while maintaining a cultural connection.

Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said supporting families, rather than apprehending children, is an important investment into the future.

"Children who have a foundation of their culture do a lot better," he said.

Tracking the numbers

Children involved in customary care will also be counted and tracked in a distinct way since the province is not apprehending or seeking a court order. However, they will be included in provincial data.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he's concerned about how the children will be counted because he said it's important to know how many there are, in order to make sure they get the necessary resources and supports.

Child welfare in Manitoba has been under scrutiny since the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair in 2005. A public inquiry into the death showed social workers lost track of the young girl and missed signs she was in trouble before she was beaten by her mother and mother's boyfriend.

The province has also said it will release a review of how the child-welfare system handled Tina Fontaine's case. Fontaine, 15, ran away from a Winnipeg hotel where she was being housed in August 2014 and her body was found wrapped in a duvet, weighed down by rocks, in the Red River nine days later.

with files from Caroline Barghout and The Canadian Press