Indigenous

Ottawa denying millions for First Nations child welfare prevention services, says FSIN

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) is breaking a commitment to provide "unlimited" funding for preventive child welfare services and is now in violation of an order from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, according to a senior chief in Saskatchewan. 

ISC committed to 'unlimited' funding in 2018, according to FSIN memo

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations 2nd vice-Chief David Pratt says Indigenous Services Canada has denied millions of dollars in child welfare prevention services funding requests. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) is breaking a commitment to provide "unlimited" funding for preventive child welfare services and is now in violation of an order from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, according to a senior chief in Saskatchewan. 

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) 2nd vice-Chief David Pratt said ISC has denied millions of dollars in prevention funding requests from First Nations child welfare agencies in the province. 

"It's the children that are paying the ultimate price," said Pratt. 

"We are hoping that Canada will do what is right and follow through its original commitment of unlimited prevention funding to keep our children out of care."

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal said in a non-compliance order in 2018 that the department must refund the actual cost of child welfare prevention services to First Nations child welfare agencies.

The non-compliance order stemmed from the tribunal's 2016 ruling that found Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding child-welfare services on-reserve and in Yukon.

The tribunal also ordered Ottawa to compensate children — along with some of their parents and grandparents — who were taken in the on-reserve child welfare system since 2006. The federal government is challenging the compensation order before the Federal Court.

In May 2018, Joanne Wilkinson, assistant deputy minister in ISC's child and family sector, and Cheri Moreau, ISC's director of education and social development for the Saskatchewan region, gave a presentation during a regional meeting stating that "agencies have unlimited access to prevention funding," according to an FSIN memo obtained by CBC News.

Pratt said agencies proceeded to boost their prevention services, believing the department would follow through with the commitment.  

"Now, when it comes time for Canada to reimburse those prevention monies that were spent, they are denying them," said Pratt.

$25.7M in denied requests

Pratt said ISC has since narrowed the criteria for funding eligibility through four policy changes since the non-compliance order. He said this was done without consultation and before the conclusion of a third-party study on developing a national funding model, due in August, that was supposed to shape the process with input from First Nations.

The $25.7 million in denied requests includes $20 million rejected from one agency, the Yellow Thunderbird Lodge, which serves 14 First Nations including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde's home community of Little Black Bear. 

The owed amounts include denied or delayed reimbursements and rejections of proposals.

Pratt said the FSIN could turn to the tribunal to force the federal government's hand on the issue if ISC refuses to change its position. 

"We are hoping [Indigenous Services] Minister Marc Miller and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will honour their commitments," said Pratt. 

"If we have to take that route, we are very confident the tribunal will rule with us and against Canada."

Pratt wrote to Trudeau on June 2, sending copies to Miller, Bellegarde and several MPs, requesting a meeting to sort out the issue. 

Miller's office did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News. 

Miller faces questions

Miller did not have a direct response to the issue when he was questioned by NDP MP Charlie Angus Wednesday during a session of the Special Commons COVID-19 committee that counts all MPs as members.  

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller at a news conference June 5. He did not respond directly to a question on the denial of child welfare prevention services funding in the House of Commons on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"His officials told child and family services that they would have, quote 'unlimited prevention funding for prevention work'... and after the organizations spent the money, he refused to pay," said Angus. 

"Why doesn't he ... tell us he is going to pay that money that was promised to front line child and protection services across Canada?"

Miller said the government was working to ensure First Nations can take control over their child welfare services through Bill C-92, passed last year. He also said the government was continuing to provide COVID-19-related funding to provide care for children who were in foster care and have aged out of the system.

"The federal government will not cease in order to ensure First Nation children are indeed properly taken care of on the conditions set for by First Nations communities," said Miller, who also stated Ottawa has invested $600 million in First Nations child welfare. 

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society which, along with the AFN, filed the original human rights complaint in 2007, said ISC seems to be reverting back to its old habits.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, says ISC seems to be reverting back to its old habits. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"This is really starting to feel like it was before with the federal government in terms of it calling the shots and ignoring [tribunal] orders," said Blackstock.

"We are seeing the department receiving these legitimate prevention requests and turning them down."

Blackstock said department officials don't have the expertise in child welfare to be making these types of calls. 

"They are also doing their own interpretation of what prevention is… The whole goal of this was to have qualified people in the agencies assessing families and the communities they live in and they are the ones who determine what a prevention service is."

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