'The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of children in care': Indigenous Affairs minister

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says she wants to see a child-centred approach when it comes to child welfare in Manitoba.

Overhaul of Manitoba CFS system beginning with meetings in 20 communities

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett was in Winnipeg Monday, meeting with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to reaffirm a child welfare partnership established last fall. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Manitoba's child-welfare system needs to be overhauled to keep kids with families and focus on a child-centred approach, says Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. 

But she needs Manitoba's First Nations to tell her how to accomplish that. 

"Manitoba jurisdiction belongs to First Nations," said Bennett at a press conference in Winnipeg Monday. 

As of March 31, 2016, of the 10,501 children in care of Child and Family Services, 9,205 were Inuit, Metis or First Nations. 

On Monday, Bennett met with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to reaffirm a partnership established last fall.

In 2016, Indigenous and Northern Affairs gave the AMC $413,000 to begin community engagement sessions, asking about people's experiences with Child and Family Services and how they envision the system.

The department is now giving AMC another $140,000 to continue this work this year.

So far, the AMC team has completed 10 two-day community visits. It will complete another 10 by June 30.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennet listens to Manitoba's First Nations family and children advocate, Cora Morgan, speak about community engagement sessions on child welfare. (Jillian Taylor/ CBC)
 At that point the team will provide a report to Indigenous Affairs, which will show where to go in terms of re-designing the system and how to get there. 

"The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of children in care," she said. "This is crucial to achieve reconciliation."

Bennett said a lot of the change must come in the way funding is handed out. She said dollars for prevention should be going to the communities, not the agencies. 

"A lot of the federal dollars are going to lawyers to apprehend children," she said. "We don't think that is where the dollars should go."

When asked why the plan is for more consultation and not immediate action, Minister Bennett passed the microphone over to Manitoba's First Nations child and family advocate, Cora Morgan.

"It wasn't for the sake of engaging our people one more time so nothing could be done," said Morgan.

Morgan said she is already seeing a shift in the way people are looking at child welfare in communities. She said during the consultations they think of short-term ideas to help families and bring different people, like teachers and health professionals, together. 

"We want to inspire that change, but we also want Canada to be accountable and work with us," said Morgan.

As of March 31, 2016, of the 10,501 children in care of Child and Family Services, 9,205 were Inuit, Metis or First Nations. 1:18

Working with agency

Swan Lake Chief Francine Meeches attended a youth engagement session and called it a learning experience.

"Every community is unique, nobody can say there are two communities alike across Canada," said Meeches. "We all have different needs, different issues, everybody can't paint us all with the same brush."

Swan Lake Chief Francine Meeches says her community is working with CFS to find alternative solutions to bring children home. (CBC)
Meeches said her community is working with its CFS agency to try something new. She said together they are building a group home type facility to bring children back to the First Nation.

"That will bring home a few children, maybe four or five, that will be able to reside in that residence," she said.

The chief said she is happy consultations are underway and said the answers to this problem will come from within the people.

"We don't need someone from Ottawa or Manitoba to tell me what we need in our community," she said. "It they are going to tell me what I need in my community, then you come stay in my community, you come live in my community and see what we are faced with." 

A community engagement session will be held on the Swan Lake First Nation in the coming months.

Family restoration instead of child apprehension

Manitoba's system has been under scrutiny for years following several high-profile deaths and assaults, including the killing of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in 2014 after she ran away from a hotel where she was in government care. 

Assembly Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said child welfare in Manitoba is "financially incentivized to apprehend children and keep them maintained away from their family."

"Successful real change ... will be measured by the ability of our agencies to focus their energies on family restoration opposed to child apprehension," he said in a statement.

Morgan said the current system is essentially an extension of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, referring to the era from the 1960s to the 1980s when child welfare authorities scooped up Indigenous children and adopted them out to non-Indigenous families.

"We need investments in our communities so that if there's a child in need of protection it doesn't necessarily mean that the province of Manitoba is taking responsibility for that child," Morgan said.

"We'll have mechanisms in our own communities that can step in and keep our children in our communities and ensure that they're safe and healthy."

Scott Fielding, Manitoba's family services minister, was unavailable for comment.

His spokeswoman, Andrea Slobodian, said in an emailed statement to The Canadian Press that the province is always interested in working with the federal government and First Nations to improve child welfare.

"The number of children in care is unacceptable," she wrote.

In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal delivered a landmark ruling that found the federal government provides much less support for on-reserve child welfare services than provinces provide for off-reserve services, and ruled the discrepancy was discriminatory.

In the same ruling, the tribunal demanded Ottawa implement Jordan's Principle, which states that jurisdictional disputes should not delay treatment of Indigenous patients.

The principle was named for Jordan River Anderson, a five-year-old Manitoba boy with a complex genetic disorder who died in hospital in 2005 during a two-year disagreement between the federal and provincial governments over his home care costs.

Since the ruling, the federal government has been criticized for moving slowly to make changes and has received three compliance orders from the tribunal.

Bennett said the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs' report and others from First Nations across the country will be used in provincial discussions on child-welfare reform.

"As we go coast to coast to coast we'll have recommendations ... of common themes that are happening in all the provinces and territories, as well as a firmed-up consensus about prevention dollars going into communities and not into agencies," she said.  

"What we want is for families to be empowered to look after the kids."

With files from The Canadian Press and Aidan Geary