Little progress in N.W.T. on bill to devolve child and family services to Indigenous governments

“Agreements are in place with Indigenous governments and provincial jurisdictions across Canada. We should be in that position as well,” said Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty Monday.

'The conversation has to be initiated by the Indigenous government,' says health minister

'Agreements are in place with Indigenous governments and provincial jurisdictions across Canada,' said Jackson Lafferty, speaking about child welfare under Bill C-92. 'We should be in that position as well.' (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

A federal law designed to help reduce the number of Indigenous children in care has had little impact in the Northwest Territories. 

Bill C-92 — An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families — came into effect in January of 2020. It acknowledges that Indigenous governments have the right to create their own laws on child and family services. In several provinces, the law has enabled First Nations to establish their own child welfare agencies. 

In the N.W.T. legislature Monday, Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty pressed Health Minister Julie Green on what progress has happened to date. 

"Agreements are in place with Indigenous governments and provincial jurisdictions across Canada. We should be in that position as well," Lafferty said. 

Green said that both she and her predecessor, Diane Archie, have offered to brief Indigenous governments on the new law, and she herself has raised the issue at six bilateral meetings to date.

"The key is that the conversation has to be initiated by the Indigenous government," Green said. 

"It's not for us to tell Indigenous governments that it's time for then to create their own child and family services law. It's for them to tell us that they are ready to do it." 

Inuvialuit take the lead

During oral questions, Green revealed that two Indigenous governments have come forward to express an interest, one about a year ago and one just two months ago. 

Duane Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, confirmed that the IRC was the first group. 

He said they're working with a legal firm to draft legislation. The next step will be negotiating an agreement with the territorial and federal governments. 

One catch in drafting that legislation is that the IRC still isn't clear on just how many children they could be dealing with. 

"We do not have an accurate number because the government still won't provide that to us," he said. Smith said confidentiality could be the issue, but noted that the IRC has had several confidentiality agreements with the N.W.T. government in the past. 

He feels the territorial government doesn't view this as a priority. 

"We should be taking on the responsibility ourselves of looking after our children wherever they may be … for the well-being not only of them, but of our culture." 

Communication improved

One thing has changed: the law requires provincial and territorial child welfare agencies to notify Indigenous groups when a significant action is about to be taken with one of their members. 

Green said, and Smith confirmed, that has been happening recently. In the past, Smith said, the Inuvialuit often had a better working relationship with child welfare agencies in the provinces, dealing with members who live outside of the territory, than with the N.W.T. government.

Pressing further in the legislature, Lafferty asked the minister what her department has done to support Indigenous governments who want to take on this complex work. 

"What actions were taken to coordinate her department's response?" Lafferty asked. "What reviews and committees were established?"

Green repeated the fact that she's notified Indigenous groups they can take this on. 

She also said she's made it clear the government is willing to work in partnership with Indigenous groups, as well as offer support to Indigenous groups that want to go it alone. 

"A major stumbling block I'm hearing is capacity," Green said. "I think there's interest. But we do not at this point have anything that is started by way of negotiations." 

"We want this to happen," she said. "We want Indigenous governments to take the lead in caring for their children and we are here to help, but the first step needs to be the step by the Indigenous government."