OTTAWA — Enough talk about the over-representation of Indigenous kids in the child welfare system — it’s time for action, says the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Murray Sinclair, now an independent senator, says it’s critical to get all the federal, provincial and territorial players moving now — a message he plans to deliver this week at an emergency conference in Ottawa with officials and experts from across the country.
“The most important thing right now is get the parties that are involved in child welfare in Canada … to start doing something,” he said in a recent interview, adding that the child welfare system is “frozen by analysis, so they are paralysed into thinking their job is too huge and they are not going to be able to fashion any type of a proper resolution.”
Sinclair said he hopes the conference will focus on ”how do we move in concert with each other, so provincial, territorial and federal government officials talking about what is it that each party has to do in order to address the over-representation and unnecessary over-representation of Aboriginal children in care.”
The impact of that over-representation can be devastating. There is, for instance, an unmistakable link between the number of children who end up in care and the sky-high rate of Indigenous people who end up in jail, Sinclair said.
As chair of the TRC, Sinclair spent six years documenting Canada’s residential school legacy — a government-funded, church-operated assimilation program from the 1870s to 1996 — and issued 94 recommendations, including several involving child welfare reform that topped the list.
Among other things, the commission called on federal, provincial, territorial and Aboriginal governments to commit to reducing the number of Indigenous children in care by taking action — including providing adequate resources to allow Indigenous communities and child welfare organizations to keep families together where possible and keep children in culturally-appropriate environments.
Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and her senior officials seem prepared to take additional steps to confront systemic failures, Sinclair said. But he warned them against getting caught up in a “well-intentioned dialogue” without being able to point to concrete changes.
“At a certain point in time, there’s going to be a turning point,” Sinclair said. “I think with child welfare, we are there. I think we actually have a minister and we have senior officials in place within her department who are prepared to try and make some change.”
At the Assembly of First Nations’ special chiefs meeting in December, Philpott announced that the upcoming federal budget will include more money for First Nations child welfare services on reserves but she stopped short of saying how much. She reiterated that promise Tuesday as she outlined the goals of her new department and said fixing the child welfare system is her number one priority.
She said the Liberal government is keen to fix the “funding gap” in the resources available to Indigenous children as compared to non-Indigenous kids and conceded the Liberals have been called out repeatedly for not doing enough.
But it will take far more than additional funds to address systemic problems, Philpott insisted, arguing that reform must also focus on prevention, keeping children with their families and communities and returning children currently in care.
She said the two-day emergency meeting, which starts Thursday, is not intended to assign blame. Rather, it’s aim is to look for ideas on what can make the system work better and what kind of funding is needed to implement those ideas.
Philpott also said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked her to work as fast as possible to change outcomes for Indigenous people in Canada.
For their part, the AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society want the federal government to earmark more money for the problem and have pointed to a unanimous motion passed in the Commons in fall 2016 that called for an immediate $155-million cash infusion.
NDP Indigenous Affairs critic Charlie Angus estimates the immediate shortfall in funding is at least $300 million a year.
— with files from Mia Rabson
Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press