Plan to give Indigenous governments control over child welfare draws mixed reviews

The federal government is working on a radical overhaul of Indigenous child welfare services with the goal of reducing the number of children in foster care and group homes. The proposed legislation is getting kudos from many Indigenous leaders — although some say it still doesn't go far enough.

For some Manitoba advocates it's a step in the right direction, but AMC says it doesn't go far enough

Kane Kirton, 23, grew up in foster homes, some of which were abusive. He believes his life would have been different if the people making decisions about his welfare had been Indigenous. (Karen Pauls, CBC News)

As he edits a video about Sixties Scoop survivors, Kane Kirton reflects on how he identifies with some of their struggles.

"My mother struggled with addictions, with her own fair share of struggles and abuse," the 23-year-old Winnipegger said Friday afternoon.

"I grew up in the child welfare system, I've been involved with it my whole life. In and out of foster care homes and experienced abuse there."

Kirton is Mé​tis, but he was placed in white homes.

Luckily for him, his last placement was different, with a family who encouraged him to keep in touch with his mother and learn about his culture.

Still, even though he's still close with his last foster dad, Kirton says his life would've been different if the people making decisions about his well-being had been Indigenous.

"I think I would have definitely been placed in family or relatives," he said.

Kane Kirton aged out from foster care two years ago, when he was 21. He thinks proposed new federal legislation to overhaul the child welfare system will make a positive difference for Indigenous kids like him. (Trevor Brine, CBC News )

That's what's behind the federal government's proposed new legislation that gives control of Indigenous child welfare to First Nations, Mé​tis and Inuit governments.   

It's something Aboriginal leaders in Manitoba have been demanding for years. But the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says it doesn't to far enough.

"We want a different approach for Manitoba. We're Ground Zero for child apprehension, for the rate of deaths of children in care, the rate of newborn apprehension," Cora Morgan, the AMC's family advocate, said at a news conference in Winnipeg Friday.

There are 10,328 Manitoba children in care and 87 per cent are Indigenous. That's nearly one-quarter of all Canadian youth in the care of child welfare systems.

According to the AMC, 546 Manitoba children died in the child welfare system between 2008 and 2016. At an average of 68 each year, that's more than during the residential school era, Morgan said, describing the situation as a "crisis."

The numbers provided by the AMC Friday don't correspond with the statistics reported by the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, which recorded an annual average of approximately 13 deaths of children in care between 2009 and 2018.

The AMC has drafted its own legislation and wants Ottawa to sign off on it.

"We have a history of taking care of ourselves, an optimal way of parenting that puts children at centre of everything a community did. Colonization, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop has eroded the fabric of families. We have to restore that to be able to go back to those ways. Federal legislation just needs to empower individual First Nation family laws," Morgan said.

'Legislation marks a turning point'

The federal changes would be a radical overhaul of Indigenous child welfare services with the goal of reducing the number of children in foster care and group homes, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said at a news conference in Ottawa Friday.

"It started with residential schools. It continued in the Sixties Scoop and still today children are being taken from their families. And this legislation marks a turning point to say no more. No more scooping children, no more ripping apart families, no more lost children who don't know their language, their culture, their lineage. We are on a journey of reconciliation," Philpott said.

Mé​tis leaders are happy their children are being included in this discussion — saying they have the most to gain from any changes. They are still waiting for recognition of their residential schools and Sixties Scoop experiences.

The proposed legislation is a step toward reconciliation, "not just from the wrongs from the past but the wrongs that are currently happening in this country," said Billie Schibler, CEO of the Mé​tis CFS Authority in Manitoba.

"That's not to say that tragedies won't still happen in the child welfare system — they will and that is just the reality of it. Children are vulnerable and they don't have the ability to keep themselves safe, so they call on all of us to do that for them. But this will give us a better ability to be able to work with those families."

Billie Schibler, CEO of the Metis CFS Authority, says proposed new federal legislation on child welfare is a step towards reconciliation with Indigenous people. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

For dads like the man we're calling Henry, change can't come soon enough.

Last year, he asked for help and voluntarily put his 13-year-old daughter in care so she could get help for mental health problems. She was placed in a for-profit treatment centre in Brandon.

However, instead of getting better, she got into legal trouble.

When he tried to have her moved back to Winnipeg, social workers apprehended her instead. 

"Under the new legislation … I believe my daughter would've remained in Winnipeg. She'd still be looked after by Indigenous culture, she'd have resources more available to her. And it would keep family together," Henry said.

"What's that term? 'Shoot first, ask questions later.' That's more or less the rule of CFS today. But under the Indigenous culture and leadership I believe it would be, 'We'll ask questions first before we take the child from you.'"

Michael Redhead Champagne, right, works with families like Henry's to help navigate the child welfare system. Henry can't be identified under provincial laws to protect the identity of his 14-year-old daughter. (Trevor Brine, CBC News)

Michael Redhead Champagne is working with Henry and other families to navigate the child welfare system. He's a volunteer with the community-based group Fearless R2W, a grassroots network of parents and community members based in the St. John's and North Point Douglas neighbourhoods — the R2W postal code.

He's feeling optimistic about the proposed new legislation.

"From a practical perspective it has everything to do with what is the legal definition of family. And in Indigenous communities that is a much broader understanding of what family means. Family can mean the auntie and the uncle and the neighbour and anyone who has a vested interest in the well-being of the child," he said.

"I really think it's going to make a huge difference because it will ensure that children will be able to remain in their cultural environment and be brought up with their teachings."

'There's a very strong culture we have'

Kane Kirton aged out of the child welfare system two years ago. He thinks the proposed new legislation will make a positive difference for other kids like him.

"I think it's a good thing. Indigenous people … they're going to understand the history of kind of the experience that Indigenous people have gone through. So they're going to be able to relate to the kids who need homes," he said.

He has a word of encouragement for those still in care.

"Realize where you come from. There's a very strong culture we have."


Karen Pauls

National reporter

Karen Pauls covers Manitoba stories for CBC national news. She has worked across Canada, U.S. and Europe, and in CBC bureaus in Washington, London and Berlin. Some of her awards include the New York Festivals for coverage of the Greyhound bus beheading and a Quirks & Quarks question show, and from the Radio Television Digital News Association for stories about asylum seekers, the Michif language, the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy, live elections and royal wedding shows. In 2007, Karen received the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Dateline Hong Kong Fellowship and did a radio documentary on the 10th anniversary of the deadly avian flu outbreak. Story tips at