Southern chiefs, Liberals accuse Manitoba government of withholding millions intended for kids in care

The Southern Chiefs' Organization is calling the Manitoba government dishonourable in the way it treats vulnerable children in the province.

'Pallister [wants] to legislate himself out of being accountable': SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels 

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization said the provincial government is trying to introduce legislation that would shield it from being held responsible for clawing back money earmarked for kids in care. (CBC)

The Southern Chiefs' Organization is calling the Manitoba government dishonourable in the way it treats vulnerable children in the province.

Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels says Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government is attempting to present legislation that would prevent the government from being liable for taking hundreds of millions of dollars intended for children in care.

Through the Children's Special Allowance, the federal government gives roughly $455 to $530 for each child in care  to government child and family services agencies each month.

Beginning in 2010, Manitoba's NDP government began forcing the agencies to remit the money given, saying the province was paying for the maintenance of children in care and the money was therefore owed to them.

That money was put into general revenue. If agencies refused to remit it, the government withheld 20 per cent of the operating funds it gave the agency.

Daniels, who spoke at a press conference Wednesday alongside Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont in the city's West End, says that between 1999 and 2016, the NDP government diverted approximately $250 million. Since 2016, the PCs have diverted more than $100 million, Daniels and Lamont claimed.

Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, said Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government is using a budget bill to do an end-run around the courts. (CBC)

The clawback prompted six Indigenous child and family services agencies to sue the Manitoba government in 2018, but the SCO and Manitoba Liberals say the government has included two provisions in its budget bill that would effectively end the lawsuit.

One clause seeks to shield the province from being held responsible for clawing back the money earmarked for kids in care.

"Our children's resources are being stolen and Pallister is wanting to legislate himself out of being accountable for it," Daniels said, calling the provisions in the budget bill "get-out-of-jail-free" clauses designed to shield the Tories.

"If the Pallister government believes they're right in taking the children's money, why does he not want the courts to decide?"

Unlike other bills, budget bills don't go before committees for public hearings, Lamont said, adding he is raising the issue now because the legislature is going back into session on Oct. 7.

"The Pallister PCs are using a budget bill to do an end-run around the courts," he added.

"The law is there to hold people to their word, and these measures set a terrible precedent."

'Waste of taxpayer money'

Daniels and Lamont spoke on Wednesday in front of an Adele Avenue building, which was operated by the Southern First Nations Network of Care as a facility for children in care until 2019, when residents were evicted — three months before the province introduced a bill in an effort to break its lease on the building.

The 20-year deal was signed in 2007 under the NDP government to provide an alternative to hotel placements of kids in care.

The province on Wednesday said it stepped in to help the Southern First Nations Network of Care with the lease "at their request."

"They had signed an untendered, 20-year deal at a cost of $9.4 million and then determined the property would not meet their needs," said a statement from Families Minister Heather Stefanson.

"The lease did not allow for an early termination, which meant a large portion of SFNNC's budget — intended to support children and families — was consumed by lease payments," the statement said, adding the government tried, unsuccessfully, to renegotiate the least.

"If the lease is not terminated, it will cost the province another $6.5 million over the next 10 years, plus maintenance costs," she said.

"We believe that is a complete waste of taxpayer money, which is why we are taking steps to end the lease."

Premier Brian Pallister's government introduced legislation to get out of a rental agreement for 800 Adele Avenue. (CBC)

The SCO and Liberals said the provincial government ordered the eviction of the home in February of 2019, and that children at the home were forced out in the middle of the night.

Stefanson's statement called that "a shameful falsehood." Plans were in place for the transition of every child at the Adele home, and notice was provided ahead of time, Stefanson said.

As for requiring agencies remit the Children's Special Allowance back to the province, that is a historical practice of the previous NDP government, Stefanson said, noting the proposed legislation will change that.

Since April 2019, agencies have been retaining the allowance, as well as receiving single-envelope funding from the province, which will provide more than $400 million to the authorities and their agencies in 2020-21 — a $15-million increase compared to what they received before, Stefanson said.

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With files from Darren Bernhardt, Kristen Annable and Ian Froese