B.C. Indigenous leaders accuse Bennett of 'stall tactics' on child welfare

B.C. Indigenous leaders are "extremely concerned" about the state of First Nations child welfare, and, in a strongly worded letter, are accusing Canada's Indigenous affairs minister of using "stall tactics" to delay fixing the broken system.

Chiefs call appointment of 'ministerial special representative' an effort to punt spending commitments

First Nations leaders in B.C. are accusing Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett of 'stall tactics' by appointing a special ministerial representative on the child welfare file. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

B.C. Indigenous leaders are "extremely concerned" about the state of First Nations child welfare, and, in a strongly worded letter, are accusing Canada's Indigenous affairs minister of using "stall tactics" to delay fixing the broken system.

Leaders from the First Nations Summit, the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs and the B.C. chapter of the Assembly of First Nations have written to Bennett to raise red flags about her appointment of Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, who they describe as a close friend of the Toronto-area minister, as the "ministerial special representative" on the file, 

Bennett appointed Wesley-Esquimaux in November in the face of an opposition day motion from the NDP demanding the government comply with a ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that found Canada is discriminating against First Nations children in its delivery of child welfare services on reserve. (Bennett's office said the decision to appoint Wesley-Esquimaux was made months before the motion.)

"To be clear, we are concerned that this appointment is a stall tactic by your government to delay having to comply with the ruling," the letter, dated Dec. 6, 2016, said. "With all due respect, the appointment of [Wesley-Esquimaux] with vaguely defined goals is unnecessary, considering the clarity and direction of the ruling."

The tribunal has issued two compliance orders since its January 2016 ruling, demanding the Liberals provide services to First Nations children comparable to those offered by provincial systems.

"Canada must immediately comply with the ruling — there is absolutely no circumstances that justify a continuation of the currently racist fiscal policy," the chiefs said.

'Extremely concerned'

The minister has pointed to the hire as proof the government is taking action to fix the welfare system, which supports First Nations children in foster care and provides counselling and mental health services, among other programs.

Bennett said at the time Wesley-Esquimaux, the Indigenous Chair on Truth and Reconciliation at Lakehead University, would lead the push for "comprehensive reforms" to the system — which has been beset by deaths and abuse — through consultation with Indigenous communities across the country.

She reiterated in an interview with CBC News Friday that the appointment is not an attempt to shirk her ministerial responsibilities to reform child welfare, and said she was surprised the chiefs leveled such a stinging accusation.

"We know a lot of what needs to be done; how we actually do it requires this kind of consultation," she said. "Be reassured, in no way is this a stall tactic."

Bennett said she is "obsessed" with the issue. "I am really trying to change the system from one of child welfare to one of children's well-being and a much broader approach."

"We are working so hard and the reason we appointed an MSR is so we can redouble our efforts. We've got so much work to do in our department and Cynthia is working hand in glove to actually be able to have feedback [from Indigenous communities] so that it effects the policies as we go."

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, vice-provost of Aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University, has been named 'ministerial special representative' on child welfare. (CBC)

But First Nations leaders from the Western province who met with Wesley-Esquimaux late last year were dismayed by what they perceived as her lack of preparedness and the superficiality of her position.

"There was no agenda, and she did not provide any information on the goals of her appointment or a terms of reference," the letter said, signed by Grand Chief Edward John, Robert Phillips, Cheryl Casimer, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chief Bob Chamberlin, Chief Judy Wilson, and Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson.

"She confirmed that she would not be producing a report. We are extremely concerned that this unstructured way of garnering feedback and lack of public reporting means there is no accountability for this position."

Grand Chief Edward John has recommended 85 things B.C. can do to improve child welfare for Indigenous youth, and put his signature on the letter to Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett accusing the government of 'stall tactics' on child welfare. (CBC)

Frustration with consultation

There is a growing frustration with the government's insistence on months-long consultation a year after the quasi-judicial tribunal's ruling, and concerns that the Liberals are spending money to support a ministerial representative when funds should instead be deployed to support actual welfare services, the signatories said.

"Implementing the historic decision of the CHRT is not a matter for consultation or engagement by a ministerial special representative because it is legally binding."

Liberal MPs unanimously supported the NDP's call to immediately inject $155 million in new funding into the system but the chiefs said only $61 million has so far been allocated for child and family services this fiscal year.

Bennett said Friday the number is closer to $100 million this year. She also said the government is reluctant to give more money to the system as it is currently constituted, because it has so badly failed First Nations children.

"In B.C. … 40 law firms are being paid to apprehend kids. That isn't where we want money to be spent."

Budget 2016 committed some $635 million over five years in new funding for child welfare services, but most of that money is back-loaded to 2019, and 2020, a year after the next scheduled election.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.