Friday November 17, 2017

Indigenous services minister says Ottawa will participate in Innu foster care inquiry

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says she won't personally attend in the Innu foster care inquiry, but will send government representatives.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says she won't personally attend in the Innu foster care inquiry, but will send government representatives. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Story transcript

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says her government will attend a provincial inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in the child protection system.

The announcement comes a day after Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich said he was embarrassed because it appeared the federal government would not participate in the inquiry beyond a contribution of money and information. 

The Innu leadership and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced the inquiry in July after the son of the deputy grand chief took his own life. 

Philpott told As It Happens host Carol Off that she won't personally be attending the inquiry, but will send delegates on behalf of the federal government.

Off spoke with Philpott about why she won't be attending the inquiry. Here is part of that conversation.

Grand Chief Rich ... had anticipated that the federal government would be at the table for this probe — this inquiry — into why so many of their children are removed from their Labrador Innu communities; two communities. There's 165 children in foster care, 80 of whom are outside of their communities. He wanted to know why you're not going to be at that meeting. Why the federal government is not going to be at that inquiry. Why not?

Well, in fact, this is a provincial inquiry that he's referring to. There's a provincial inquiry that's taking place. It's an investigation of deaths in the two communities. We are not formally part of the provincial inquiry but we are absolutely participating in the process. He probably knows, and I'm happy to affirm to you, that we're supporting that process financially — $250,000 to support activities around the inquiry.

We will, of course, be providing documents responding to the recommendations. And we're part of a much larger process that's a roundtable that we've put $2 million into to address child and family services in these two Innu communities. There's a lot that's being done that's a part of the bigger response, including committing to building group homes in the communities that are part of Innu Nations.

Greg Rich

Innu Nation Grand Chief Greg Rich says the federal government must work with the province to reduce number of children in foster care. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The thing is that the then-Indigenous relations minister, Carolyn Bennett, told CBC last summer and told the Grand Chief that she expected to participate in this inquiry that was of a federal level of importance; that the federal government had to be there. So what's changed?

As I said, we are participating, it's a provincial inquiry...

Are you going to be at the meeting? Will the federal government be at the meeting?

There will be representatives that will be participating in this. We're supporting it financially. We're there making sure they've got the documents that they need. We will be certainly following it very closely. But it's a provincial inquiry and they're using their provincial legislation for it.

You say people will be there. Will you be in the room? Are you one of those people?

A federal minister would not normally be at a provincial inquiry.

This is what Grand Chief Rich is pointing out. All the problems they have — the reasons why these children are removed is for reasons that they have addictions problems, they have housing problems, they have labour problems, they have employment problems — all of which are federal responsibilities. So, he points out you can't have a meeting like this and discuss why these children are taken into foster care if you don't address the failure of the federal government to provide what they need to keep the children in these communities. What do you say to that?

He makes an incredibly important point and I absolutely agree that we will not address child and family services and the reform that's necessary across the country and we will not prevent the apprehension of children without talking about all of those things that you said.

I have said repeatedly in my new role — that we need to make sure that families are reunified and that we prevent the unnecessary apprehension of children, that we support prevention work, including making sure people have adequate and that their health care is addressed, et cetera.

This is a very specific provincial inquiry about three deaths which will be very, very important and we will absolutely depend on the information that is acquired through that inquiry process to address. And we will respond to the specific recommendations of that inquiry.

We will participate to every extent that we can and appropriately participate in a provincial inquiry. And we firmly acknowledge that every… we will not see reformation of the child and family services process for Indigenous Peoples in this country, unless the federal government, the provinces, territories, child welfare agencies, and First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders are all gathered together. That's what we're doing in January to be able to look at the big picture.

What he points out — and we've heard this so many times from Indigenous communities — [is] that they become ping pong balls between levels of government. Between the federal government and the provincial governments.

John Nui and Anastasia Qupee

John Nui, band chief in Natuashish, and Anastasia Qupee, Innu Nation Grand Chief, spoke with CBC in July about their hopes for the inquiry. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

We've seen this over and over again, minister, that Indigenous communities become tossed back and forth between these two levels of government. When is that going to stop?

You will have never heard me blame anyone else for the problems associated with child and family services. But what I will say is that I'm not pointing fingers at anyone, but I am inviting everyone to be part of the solution.

If you're not going to be there, will you have people from your department, from your ministry, at that roundtable? Will you actually put people in that room?

Yes, there will be federal participation. There will be people there. They will be providing support and documents and following the process extremely closely.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Jane Philpott.