Manitoba taps Indigenous leaders to help review 'broken' child welfare system

A seven-member committee set up to find ways to reduce the fast-rising and overwhelmingly Indigenous number of children in Manitoba government care is to hold its first meeting today.

Manitoba has roughly 11,000 kids — about 90% of them Indigenous — in system, highest rate among provinces

Some Manitoba First Nation leaders have said they are worried about some of the reforms planned for the province's troubled child-welfare system. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

A committee largely made up of Indigenous community leaders will help the province review and reform the child-welfare system, Manitoba's families minister says.

"We want to make sure that it's a community-driven process, a process that will evolve and make sure that we have lifelong commitments to individuals … and repair the system that we think is broken," Scott Fielding said Thursday.

The seven-member committee includes five Indigenous leaders and held its first meeting Thursday. The group will meet with Indigenous and child-welfare organizations as it works toward transforming The Child and Family Services Act and The Child and Family Services Authorities Act.

Andrew Micklefield was appointed chair of the panel made of representatives from First Nation, Métis and other groups and organizations involved in child care.

"It's something I do with a mingled sense of excitement but also with a heavy heart," said Micklefield, MLA and deputy government house leader.

Andrew Micklefield (left) and Minister Scott Fielding say reforms to the child-welfare system will be community efforts that incorporate Indigenous perspectives. (CBC)

"These are very serious issues, these are very real situations and already some of what we've heard has been difficult to listen to, frankly."

Sherwood Armbruster, a chief of staff for former Winnipeg mayor Sam Katz who left the city to become chief administrative officer for Siloam Mission in 2009, has been named vice-chair of the committee.

It also includes Michael Redhead Champagne, founder of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities and a community organizer in Winnipeg's North End, and Diane Redsky, the executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. Both have direct personal or professional experience with the child-welfare system.

Michael Redhead Champagne is one of seven Manitobans appointed to sit on the legislative review committee. (CBC)

"As a product of the child-welfare system myself, I feel like the child-welfare reforms that we're beginning to work on today are long-awaited," said Champagne.

"There is a large desire within inner-city, Indigenous and rural communities to create and craft a solution that works for Manitoba families."

Champagne said there are many barriers in the way of needed changes, and he welcomes suggestions from Manitobans.

Recommendations are to be presented to the government by next spring.

Child-welfare overhaul

Minister Fielding announced a package of measures this past fall aimed at addressing criticism raised by many First Nations leaders and by a 2013 public inquiry report that said the child-welfare system needs an overhaul.

There are roughly 10,700 kids in care in Manitoba, according to the government's annual families report, ranking it among the highest per-capita compared with other provinces. Almost 90 per cent of those in the system come from Indigenous backgrounds.

Fielding said his department is focused on reunifying families where possible, reducing the number of kids in care, bringing down the amount of time kids spend in the system, and providing performance-based incentives to family services agencies he says will allow them to focus more on preventive measures in the long run.

Fielding said he wants to work with Indigenous leadership and the federal government to improve the system.

AMC absent

The legislative review committee does not include a representative from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which remains critical of the Pallister government and skeptical about its proposed reforms to child welfare.

"Any reform to the child welfare program must be informed and led by Manitoba First Nations," AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a statement.

This isn't about spending money wisely, this is about improving and fixing a system that is broken.- Scott Fielding

"Governments have had the chance to impose their ideals and standards of child welfare, and they have failed Indigenous children with residential schools, the [Sixties] Scoop and today with apprehension under the current child welfare system."

Dumas signed a memorandum of understanding with federal ministers in December. Among other changes, he hopes the MOU will help First Nations gain more control over how federal allowances earmarked for Indigenous kids in care are funnelled into the province.

Right now, family services agencies receive the money and must remit it to the provincial government, which in turn invests in child-welfare and related services. Dumas wants Manitoba to follow models in other provinces that set federal transfers aside and hands over the money to kids once they age out of care.

"This isn't about spending money wisely, this is about improving and fixing a system that is broken," said Fielding.

Fielding, ministers and Indigenous leaders from other provinces are expected to take part in an emergency meeting with the federal government in January to discuss reforms to child-welfare.

Legislative review committee:

  • Sherwood Armbruster, former CAO of Siloam Mission, past board member of North End Family Centre and National Council of Welfare.
  • Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
  • Michael Redhead Champagne, founder of Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, Meet Me at the Bell Tower organizer, board member at Marymound.
  • Joanne Crate, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak child and family services liaison.
  • Dave Daniels, Southern Chiefs Organization representative, founder of Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services.
  • Audrey Frances Chartrand, former director of Manitoba Métis Federation community liaison department.

With files from the Canadian Press