OTTAWA – The federal government is determined to overhaul the First Nations child welfare system, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says – even as critics focused on the issue say the budget fell well short of what’s needed.
It’s also necessary to increase capacity so child welfare services can be properly delivered and controlled by First Nations themselves, Bennett said Wednesday in a post-budget interview with The Canadian Press.
“We think the $635 million (over five years for child and family services) that we are committing to in this budget is significant,” Bennett said.
“We are very interested in working together to have less children in foster care, get children back to their communities as we’ve heard time and time again in the pre-inquiry hearings on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.”
Advocate Cindy Blackstock has a much different assessment of the government’s level of funding, which includes an initial outlay of $71 million in 2016-17.
As president of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Blackstock spent nearly a decade fighting the federal government over what has long been characterized as the perpetual underfunding of reserve care.
On Tuesday, despite a multibillion-dollar federal budget windfall for Aboriginal Peoples, including First Nations education, infrastructure and social housing, Blackstock assailed the government for failing to spend the needed $200 million on indigenous child welfare services this year.
During their lengthy legal battle, Blackstock’s society and the Assembly of First Nations argued the government failed to provide First Nations children with the same level of welfare services that exist elsewhere, contrary to the Canadian Human Rights Act.
At the end of January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in their favour and the government opted not to appeal the judgment.
However, $71 million in the first year does not meet the legal obligation outlined by the tribunal, Blackstock said, acknowledging that her disappointment with the budget has seemed out of sync with other First Nations stakeholders.
“When we use these conversations about giving credit for first steps, it sometimes distracts away from what is actually happening to the kids,” Blackstock said.
“We sometimes don’t acknowledge that these poor little kids are still being treated that they are worth less … I don’t think that’s okay … I can’t be grateful for a child receiving less because of their race under any circumstance.”
The tribunal could end up ordering the government to provide additional funding, she added.
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde also urged the government to ensure the money flows for child welfare.
“We’ve got to take what is there now and get it out as soon as possible,” Bellegarde told a news conference Wednesday.
The system itself needs to be redesigned, he acknowledged.
“It is not just about the resources,” Bellegarde said. “That’s one piece, a very key piece. First Nations controlled jurisdiction over child and family services, we say _ not only on-reserve, but as well as off-reserve.”
Funding for First Nations issues was a central theme of the Liberal’s government’s first budget, featuring $8.4 billion in spending commitments over multiple years for education, water, housing and other services.
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said that money should be considered a deposit on the actual amount owed.
MKO is an organization representing First Nations in northern Manitoba.
“To look at it, it seems like an impressive number but when you break it down to what the needs are and also what is owed in terms of resources and the land that was taken from our people, it doesn’t really compare,” North Wilson said. “It’s a good start.”
Canadians need to be mindful of a history of underfunding, she added, citing the two per cent funding cap that was put in place in the late 1990s for reserve programs and services.
The Liberals have committed to removing that cap as part of their effort to establish a new fiscal relationship with First Nations.
“We have a lot of catch-up to do.”