Grand Chief Derek Nepinak calls it a watershed moment that he hopes will impact Manitoba's child welfare system.

A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has ruled the Canadian government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide the level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere.

"This decision acknowledges and legitimizes what our First Nations leaders and people have known for decades: that our children's rights are violated, and our children are not offered the same treatment as the rest of Canada. It's unfortunate that it took so long," said Nepinak, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).

"And it's unfortunate that we had to go through seven or eight years of battling with a Harper government that should have seen that justice is what was due for our young people."

But now it's time to make some changes, he said.

Less funding for First Nations family support means more children have ended up in the child welfare system, Nepinak said.

"The province of Manitoba's system has been broken for quite some time. It's a child apprehension machine," he said.

"As the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has identified, it's something that we've said all along — the system is designed and motivated to actually apprehend more children."

Manitoba has the highest number of First Nations children in care compared to the rest of Canada and also has the highest child apprehension rate in the world, according to the AMC. 

Nepinak acknowledged that steps are being taken to change the Manitoba child welfare system, with the province last month proposing changes to the Child and Family Services Act.

The change would see more responsibility given to indigenous communities, allowing children to be placed with other relatives or families in the same community.

But now there is opportunity to make things right across the country by "bringing our children home," Nepinak said.

That means "building the proper capacity at the community level, including the infrastructure needed to keep our children in the community, instead of dislocating them and putting them in foster care placements that are disconnected from their language and their culture and their families," he said.

"Depending on the government response … if they allocate the right resources and bring the right parties to the table, I think this could be a moment in time that we'll remember where families started to be empowered once again."

A way to keep families together

Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents First Nations in the province's north, wholeheartedly agrees.

"[This ruling] is huge. It could be part of the solution of the nation-to-nation building that we're hearing about and we've all pushed for. This is part of it," she said.

The solution must be "a way to keep families together," she said.

"Whether that means investment into more mentors and workers that are going to be in the home themselves, then we need to do that," she said.

"We are so quick to spend so much money, millions of dollars, putting children in care and apprehending them from their families. We should be doing the reverse — putting in resources into homes and into communities, where kids can stay home with their families within their own communities.

"Nothing was done in the past and this previous [federal] government didn't really care or even acknowledge that there was a problem. And now we're seeing there is a problem. So the time is now."

Warrior and hero

Both she and Nepinak praised Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society, who first filed the Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint — along with the Assembly of First Nations — in February 2007.

"She's a tremendous champion and a true warrior of this generation," Nepinak said.

"We should honour her for her work and her perseverance, overcoming bullying tactics, overcoming the effects of the surveillance the Harper government had used to try to persuade her to step away from this.

"She is certainly a hero of our time."

"The importance of this decision cannot be over-stated," said Kevin Hart, the AFN's Manitoba regional chief, who is responsible for the assembly's child welfare portfolio.

"The AFN lifts up our partner in this work, Cindy Blackstock … for her long-standing commitment and dedication to achieving equity for our kids. This is about our children, our families and our future, and we will be relentless in our efforts to ensure they have every opportunity to justice, fairness and success."