'Mistakes will be made': Federal minister acknowledges difficulty of Indigenous child welfare reform
Agencies and provinces still have many unanswered questions as Bill C-92 takes effect
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says a major overhaul of the Indigenous child welfare system that began on Jan. 1 won't unfold without stumbles, but the stakes are too high not to continue pushing forward.
"Mistakes will be made," Miller said. "We need to be ready for that, but that is a recognition that the status quo is unacceptable and that the work needs to be done."
Indigenous children make up seven per cent of Canada's population, but they represent about 50 per cent of youth in care, according to Miller. There are more Indigenous children in care now than at the height of the residential school era (which took place between the 1830s and the closure of the last institution in 1996).
The federal government passed Bill C-92 — officially known as An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families — last June, with the aim of tackling what has been termed a "humanitarian crisis."
The new legislation creates national standards on how Indigenous children are to be treated. For example, when looking to place kids in foster care, authorities are to prioritize extended family and home communities.
The law also allows communities to create their own child welfare laws, which take effect after giving the federal government one year's notice.
But some provinces and front-line service providers accuse Ottawa of lacking a plan to implement the law — and warn that it may fail the very children it's trying to help.
Jeffrey Schiffer is executive director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, Canada's largest urban Indigenous child welfare organization. He said the federal government should have given itself more time to roll out the law.
"It think it was quick and it was hasty," Schiffer said. "Honestly, it's a little bit reckless to have this legislation come into force without regulations that guide its implementation, and we still have so many different ideas across Canada about what's going to happen."
Miller said that Ottawa is not taking a pan-Indigenous approach. He said the federal government will work with Indigenous communities on a case-by-case basis to tailor funds based on individual needs.
But Schiffer said the new law seems an awkward fit given the current demographics of Indigenous people — half of whom live off-reserve in cities.
He said he isn't sure how the new law applies on the front lines and worries it could create a jurisdictional quagmire.
"Right now, at Native Child, we're supporting over 60 First Nations bands, along with Inuit and Métis people," Schiffer said. "So does that mean that we're going to be using 60 different pieces of legislation? That would really complicate the work."
Schiffer said his organization hopes to sign protocols so it can provide services in line with whatever child welfare regime individual communities develop.
Possible constitutional challenge
The changes also don't sit well with some provinces. Alberta's Minister of Children Services Rebecca Schulz said her government wants Ottawa to delay the law's implementation to ensure everyone is ready.
"We still have a lot of questions about how this is going to roll out," Schulz said. "Liability is a major question, oversight is a major question, sharing of data is a major question."
Manitoba also shares the uncertainty. In an email statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government said it "continues to have very serious concerns about the lack of meaningful and respectful engagement from the federal government on C-92.
"Our top priority is to ensure the safety of all children and rushing this bill forward without a detailed implementation plan or a commitment to federal funding is dangerous, to say the least, and could put children at risk."
Quebec, meanwhile, wants out of Bill C-92 altogether. It's asking the province's Court of Appeal to rule on the constitutionality of the new law.
"There is a cost to inaction," Miller said. "I'm not going to let a constitutional battle distract me from helping communities take back control and custody of their children."
Miller said he is confident that C-92 can be implemented without re-opening the Constitution.
System will remain broken for years
Asked why these issues weren't addressed months ago, Miller said a lot of the groundwork on the legislation was done before it was passed, and he intends to speak with provincial governments about their concerns.
"A lot of what you're seeing is significant concern, which I share," Miller said. "We should all share it."
In his mandate letter to his new Indigenous services minister in December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed Miller to work with the provinces and territories to fully put Bill C-92 into effect and ensure predictable and sufficient long-term funding. Miller said he is "laser-focused" on that task.
"You always wish you had more time to do things, but I'm in a position where I need to deliver, and I believe that at the end of the day, with the help of my department and the support of my cabinet colleagues, that Indigenous children will be better off," Miller said.
He said it will take years to fix a system that is broken.
"It's the beginning of a process."