'It's hopeful': New Indigenous child welfare law prompts questions, optimism in Alberta

The provincial government has questions about a new federal law affirming Indigenous jurisdiction over child intervention services, but some who work in the field say they are optimistic about the change.

'It’s an opportunity for the Indigenous community ... for us to take control of our families'

Edmonton's Métis Child and Family Services Society executive director Donald Langford says he's optimistic about a new federal law that affirms Indigenous jurisdiction of child and family services. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The provincial government has questions about new federal law that affirms Indigenous jurisdiction over child intervention services, but some who work in the field say they are optimistic about the change.

The new rules recognize inherent First Nations, Métis and Inuit jurisdiction over Indigenous children who are in care, and also outlines requirements that child intervention service providers must meet when working on cases involving Indigenous children. 

The law came into effect on Jan. 1. In an interview this month, Alberta Children Services Minister Rebecca Schulz said she spoke with federal Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller in early December, but hasn't received any updates since. She said she has "major concerns" about funding, and hopes clarity comes sooner than later.

"There was no implementation plan around this bill — and that has been brought up by local First Nation and Métis organizations across the province — that there is no insight into whether or not there will be funding, either for setting up governance in relation to this bill or in terms of funding services within this bill," she said.

Schulz is also concerned about legal liability and oversight, and said it's unclear how the rules could affect the jurisdiction of Alberta's Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, which provides legal services to vulnerable youth and investigates serious injuries and deaths of children and youths who have had involvement with the intervention system. 

Children's Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the Alberta government has questions about how the funding formula will work. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC )

A broken system

In an email, Miller's press secretary, Vanessa Adams, described the child intervention system as "broken," and said that must be kept in mind as work continues to fix it. 

Indigenous children account for eight per cent of Canada's population under age 15, but represent 52 per cent of children in care. In Alberta, a 2016 census found Indigenous children make up 11 per cent of the province's population under 19 years old. But as of September 2019, they accounted for 69 per cent of the children in care.

Adams said funding discussions will continue as implementation plans are prepared: technical information on the federal government's website notes that the law will not be implemented as a one-size-fits-all solution, and outlines the process by which an Indigenous community can seek to establish its own laws or to adopt existing guidelines. 

"We will continue to work with First Nation, Inuit and Métis partners, as well as provincial and territorial governments, to enact the systemic change that is necessary in order to reform this broken system," Adams said in an email. 

'It's an opportunity'

Like Schulz, child welfare advocates and Indigenous groups have raised questions about how the funding will work — in early December, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations estimated that First Nations across Canada would need about $3.5 billion over five years to effectively take over child welfare services. 

Donald Langford, executive director of Edmonton's Society of Métis Child and Family Services Society, said he has been following the new legislation's progress carefully for about a year.

The society oversees placements of about 120 children placed in foster care, and also operates several programs to support Métis children and families. 

Langford said it is a bit like being "limbo" while Indigenous governments work out how to proceed in talks with the federal government, and agrees more consultation could have been done as the legislation was being written.

"But it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity for the Indigenous community ... for us to take control of our families," he said.

He said he watched for decades as promises by provincial governments to increase Indigenous communities' involvement went unfilled.

"We really didn't have much of a hope until this act was pushed through Parliament this year," he said. "It will allow the Indigenous communities to make decisions for their children.

"It has been a disappointment the way our community has been treated and served."

With the new law on the books, he is hopeful an arrangement could be made to become a service provider for the foster children's biological parents as well, so that support could be better co-ordinated. 

"I would want to have their families in my family support programs, so we get the whole picture and we can work with both and build a family again," he said.  

Mandating what's already possible

While federal, provincial and Indigenous governments sort out agreements for each community, existing child intervention service providers must follow the new rules laid out in the act, said Hadley Friedland, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta.

"People seem to be almost completely ignoring the fact that part of this act were national standards, that came into force Jan. 1 and are the law right now," she said.

Hadley Friedland, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, is preparing guides about the new federal Indigenous child welfare law for service providers. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

She said within Alberta there hasn't been education about these new standards, rights, and responsibilities that must be implemented and complied with.

Friedland is co-lead of the Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge, a partnership between the U of A's faculties of law and native studies with a mandate to assist Indigenous communities working through governance and legal issues.

In an effort to help lawyers, judges, social workers, and others, Friedland is preparing guides to help people who work in child intervention better understand how to ensure they are complying with the new rules.

The new national standards affirm the importance of cultural and familial connections for Indigenous children, and enforce giving more notice to families and communities when decisions are being made about placements and custody. Keeping children with their siblings, and prioritizing placing them with families and within their communities is also key, as is ensuring regular reviews of the need for apprehension to continue. There is also a requirement that reasonable efforts be made to prevent children from being placed in care, and enforcement of a principle that a child can't be apprehended solely because their family is impoverished.

Indigenous children and families deserve this. They've always deserved this-Hadley Friedland

The good news, Friedland said, is that Alberta's existing child welfare legislation already encourages service providers to do the things that are now required.

"There's nothing the national standards require right now that isn't already possible under the current Alberta act," she said. "It's just that now these things are mandatory, rather than just possible."

Friedland agrees the federal government did a "very poor" job educating stakeholders about the act. But, like Langford, she is optimistic about what's possible

"It's hopeful. It really gives us a path, and a way toward reconciliation," she said, adding that the new law is an opportunity to enact the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Calls to Action that relate to reducing the number of Indigenous children in care.

"Indigenous children and families deserve this," she said. "They've always deserved this."