Manitoba

Manitoba First Nations chiefs, advocate seek child-welfare changes after tribunal ruling

Manitoba First Nations leaders and advocates say they hope a landmark national ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal will prompt changes to the province's child welfare system, which has a high percentage of indigenous children in care.

'We need to start hitting the ground running,' says First Nations family advocate

Manitoba First Nations leaders and advocates say they hope a landmark national ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal will prompt changes to the province's child welfare system, which has a high percentage of indigenous children in care. 1:57

Manitoba First Nations leaders and advocates say they hope a landmark national ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal will prompt changes to the province's child welfare system, which has a high percentage of indigenous children in care.

The tribunal ruled on Tuesday that the Canadian government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide the level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere.

Among other things, the tribunal calls for a redesign of the child welfare system and its funding model, as well as more funding and support to allow First Nations to deliver their own services.

The ruling came almost nine years after a complaint was filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in February 2007.

"There needs to be a way to effect immediate change because since the tribunal was called, nine years have passed," said Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"Children have come and gone; they've aged out of the system. So we need to start hitting the ground running."

Morgan said about 90 per cent of the approximately 11,000 children currently in Manitoba's Child and Family Services (CFS) system are indigenous.

'It hurts' to see child apprehended, says chief

Chief Jim Bear of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, northeast of Winnipeg, said he's relieved to hear the government is being ordered to fix the underfunding for child welfare services in First Nations.

All too often, Bear said, children are removed from their families by CFS officials and placed outside their home communities.

"It hurts when you see a child being apprehended and you feel for that family member," he said.

Chief Jim Bear of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation says he's relieved to hear the government is being ordered to fix the underfunding for child welfare services in First Nations communities. (CBC)
Bear said about 90 children from his First Nation are in the CFS system, and only six of them are in care within the community.

"The answer to a lot of them is to just take the child, place them in a foreign environment rather than stepping up and ensuring that there's adequate finances and healing resources," he said.

An increase in funding would help retain child-welfare workers and provide valuable programs to help keep families united, Bear said.

Chief Russell Lambert of the Poplar River First Nation said he's waiting to see how the tribunal decision will impact families, but he noted that they need more programming support.

"It has a lot of negative impact on the families because they can't really address the needs of the children, and that is one of the bigger problems that we encounter," he said.

Parent also hopeful

Some parents also welcomed the tribunal's decision, including Joni Wilson, whose 14-year-old son Aidan has a number of health problems and requires respite care — a service they can only access in Winnipeg, as it's not funded in their home community, the Peguis First Nation.

Joni Wilson with her children Sparrow, left, and Aidan, right. (Trevor Lyons/Radio-Canada)
Wilson said her only other option was putting her son in CFS care.

"For them to be able to help me, I'd have to give up my son, put him in care," she said. "That was not something I was willing to do. There was nothing I was doing wrong as a parent."

Wilson said while she hopes to see improvements to child welfare services as a result of the tribunal's ruling, she has also been waiting for changes to how First Nations children access health and social services as a result of Jordan's Principle, which was endorsed by the House of Commons in 2007.

Under Jordan's Principle, First Nations children are entitled to receive the public assistance they need, regardless of disputes between levels of government over who should pay.

"With Jordan's Principle … there was supposed to be a change, but unfortunately there hasn't been much done about it," Wilson said.

"So I think at a grander level now, with a bigger ruling like this, that some services will be put in place. For people who live on reserve … some of those boundaries can finally be crossed by provincial services and these gaps can be filled."