The House

​Reuniting Indigenous families takes spotlight of proposed foster system reforms

Jane Philpott, the federal minister of Indigenous services, says promoting the reunification of families will be a key focus of the government's strategy to improve the care of Indigenous foster children.

Emergency meeting to discuss care of Indigenous children held this week in Ottawa

At the meeting, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott vowed more money for First Nations child welfare in budget 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Promoting the reunification of families will be a key focus of the government's strategy to improve the care of Indigenous foster children.

That message was stressed by Jane Philpott, the federal minister of Indigenous services, at this week's emergency meeting of federal, provincial and Indigenous officials to discuss Indigenous children in foster care.

Factors like poverty, housing and addiction all combined against Indigenous children, she said — damage has already been done and it's time to fix the issues.

"It's a complex issue that has multiple factors," she told The House.

"There are multiple reasons how we got into this circumstance, now it's our job to change those factors."

More Indigenous children in care

Though Indigenous children represent less than eight per cent of Canadian children, they make up more than half of the children currently in foster care, according to Statistics Canada.

In the Prairies, the contrast is even more stark. About 90 per cent of foster children in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are Indigenous.

To help reduce the rate, Philpott announced a six-part plan the government will use to improve the situation of tens of thousands of children in foster care. She also promised the 2018 budget would include more money for Indigenous children.

The plan includes implementing all orders received from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, focusing on preventing children from entering the foster system, exploring options to develop policies with the provinces and territories and reuniting families.

The area Philpott said she sees a need for immediate work is family reunification.

"Should we not first look for other people who might be able to care for their child and keep them in their community and give those families the rights that they have to be able to make decisions around their children and raise them in their own culture?" she said.

Currently, organizations that coordinate care are given funding based on how many children they are responsible for. That model, according to Philpott, is outdated and dangerous.  

"More money flows if more children are taken out of their homes," she continued.

"That's a crazy way to design a system."

Driven by stories from survivors

The meeting, while beneficial, received some criticism from Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Gatherings like this are helpful, she told The House last week, but there needs to be a concrete plan in motion when the participants leave.

Looking ahead, Philpott said stories she heard from children who endured the broken system shows Indigenous foster care needs both an immediate and longer term reform.

"Those are the stories that drive us to say 'Those young people need our support now so that those who have been torn away from their families can be reunited and those that don't have to be apprehended can stay with their families,'" she concluded.

Her team will start working on the six-point plan on Monday, including provisions for shorter and longer term goals.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott discusses what came out of the emergency meeting looking into systemic issues with the country's First Nations child welfare programs. 8:11