Indigenous child welfare rates creating 'humanitarian crisis' in Canada, says federal minister

The disproportionate number of Indigenous children currently in the child welfare system has created a “humanitarian crisis” in the country, says Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott.

Provincial governments open to meeting with Ottawa on Indigenous child welfare

Feds call emergency meeting with provinces on Indigenous child welfare

6 years ago
Duration 5:58
'Kids need to be with their families in their communities and cultures,' says Indigenous Services Min. Jane Philpott.

The disproportionate number of Indigenous children currently in the child welfare system has created a "humanitarian crisis" in the country, says Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott.

Philpott sent a letter to provincial and territorial counterparts Tuesday requesting an "emergency meeting" on Indigenous children and family services early in the New Year. The meeting will also include Indigenous leaders, representatives and child welfare experts.

"We are facing a humanitarian crisis in this country where Indigenous children are vastly disproportionately over-represented in the child welfare system," said Philpott in an interview Thursday with Power & Politics.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott wants an emergency meeting with provincial, territorial and Indigenous representatives on the 'crisis' of Indigenous child welfare. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Philpott said in Manitoba, there are a total of 11,000 children in care and 10,000 are Indigenous children. Statistics Canada census data released last week revealed 4,300 Indigenous children under the age of four are currently in foster care.

"This is very much reminiscent of the residential school system where children are being scooped up from their homes, taken away from their family and we will pay the price for this for generations to come," she said.

Ottawa is currently facing a ruling issued in January 2016 by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which ordered an immediate overhaul of the on-reserve First Nation child welfare system and an immediate increase in funding. The tribunal ruled the federal government discriminated against First Nation children by under-funding on-reserve child welfare services.

Ottawa provided an addition $200 million last year for First Nation child welfare and committed an additional $256 million this year, according to Philpott's office.

Michael Coteau, Ontario minister of children and youth services, says Indigenous children living on-reserve face barriers and systemic racism. (CBC)

Philpott said Ottawa cannot do the work alone. While Ottawa provides the majority of funding for on-reserve child welfare, the provinces — along with private and First Nation agencies — deliver the services. Philpott said more money is part of the answer as well as a serious overhaul of a system in which money child welfare agencies receive rises with the number of children they seize.

"That is perverse incentive," said Philpott. "We should be providing more resources to prevent apprehensions."

Philpott said poverty is the main driver behind the high numbers of Indigenous children in care.

'Children only have one childhood'

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said more money is needed immediately to alleviate the poverty and allow on-reserve agencies to provide services — like mental health — equal to what is available off-reserve. Bellegarde said there are about 40,000 First Nation children in the care of provincial systems.

"Children only have one childhood," said Bellegarde, during a news conference Thursday. "Children's lives are at stake and we want to make sure their childhood is one filled with hope and inspiration and that there will be a bright day for them."

Provincial governments are welcoming Philpott's request for a meeting.

Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services Michael Coteau said he wants the meeting with Philpott to discuss how funding is currently allocated for Indigenous child welfare services by Ottawa and the provinces, along with removing pre-existing jurisdictional barriers faced by children living on-reserve and tackling systemic racism.

"The people in the past, the politicians in the past, the people in charge in the past, did a really bad job at making sure those pathways were accessible to Indigenous communities, and we need to correct that," said Coteau in a telephone interview.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde says there are 40,000 First Nation children in the care of provincial child welfare services. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Manitoba Minister of Families Scott Fielding, the co-chair of the federal-provincial-territorial working group on Indigenous child welfare, said in a statement his province wants to align legislation, information sharing and federally funded on-reserve child welfare services with Ottawa.

'Spirit Bear Plan' needed

Cindy Blackstock, president of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said the human rights tribunal order applies specifically to the federal government and it can implement changes to the system and increase funding to on-reserve child welfare agencies now without waiting for the provinces.

"I do worry about the emphasis on engagement with the provinces," said Blackstock, who has been invited to the meeting and led the human rights complaint against Ottawa that resulted in last year's ruling.

Blackstock would also like to see the Parliamentary Budget Officer make a global tally of the funding gap between all services — housing, education, child welfare — that exists on-reserve as compared to off-reserve.

With a global number in hand, which could be in the high tens of billions of dollars, Ottawa could then  execute a type of Marshall Plan — named after the U.S. initiative to rebuild Europe after the Second World War — targeting First Nations.

Blackstock calls it the "Spirit Bear Plan."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

With files from CBC's Tom Parry