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Amid uncertainty, Manitoba First Nations, Métis communities consider control of child welfare services

Multiple Manitoba Indigenous communities are mulling a move to take authority over their child welfare systems when a federal law takes effect next month, even as leaders voice concerns about uncertainty surrounding the process. 

‘There’s lots of hypotheticals’ surrounding Bill C-92, says Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels. The federal bill is intended to address overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care by handing over control of child welfare services to Indigenous governments. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Multiple Manitoba Indigenous communities are mulling a move to take authority over their child welfare systems when a federal law takes effect next month, even as leaders voice concerns about uncertainty surrounding the process. 

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, said his organization has already expressed interest to Ottawa and Manitoba in seeking autonomy under Bill C-92 when it takes effect on Jan. 1.

“We’re saying we immediately want to be at the table. We want to start this transition right now,” Chartrand said. “We’re not going to wait six months, nine months down the road to get it done.”

A further six southern Manitoba First Nations are currently in talks with the Southern Chiefs’ Organization to explore the possibility of seeking autonomy under the law, according to SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels.

Daniels said Monday he couldn’t name the communities until he’s confirmed chiefs are ready to make plans public.

The federal bill is intended to address overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care by handing over control of child welfare services to Indigenous governments.

Less than 10 per cent of all Canadian children are Indigenous, but they account for more than half of all kids in foster care. In Manitoba, nearly 90 per cent of the 11,000 kids in care are Indigenous.

The bill says groups seeking to take over their child welfare systems must notify Ottawa and the province to start talks on a “co-ordination agreement,” and sets a one-year timeline for such agreements to be reached.

But uncertainty over how that transition will work and where funding will come from, as well as concerns about continued involvement of government, have left some leaders with doubts. 

“It will cause a lot of turmoil. I think that you will have a lot of legal posturing, from the province, from the federal government,” said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

“At the end of the day, the consequences will be paid by our children, because they will be put into this quagmire of uncertainty.”

$3.5B needed for transition: AFN

The bill has so far come with no statutory funding requirements, which has concerned leaders across the country.

Kevin Hart, Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said Monday First Nations would need about $3.5 billion in funding over five years to effectively make the transition.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Bill C-92 will only lead to more jurisdictional conflict and uncertainty for First Nations children in care. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said chiefs in his group support the principle of the bill, but are cautious about its implementation. The organization represents 26 northern Manitoba First Nations.

“Most of the chiefs welcome change, but … they need assurance to make sure that the resources and the capacity to do that is there,” he said.

“You’re going to need funding, you’re going to need organization to be able to move from one entity to another. To see that transformation, you’re going to have to have resources that the agencies do not currently have.”

Daniels said he’s concerned, too, about a lack of specifics in the bill.

“There’s lots of hypotheticals,” he said. “But I think that, overall, if we can take at least one level of government out of the equation — I think that’s a good thing.”

Rola Tfaili, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, wrote in an email Monday the federal government will be giving updates on the bill to various partners as they become available. Implementation costs will be discussed through governance mechanisms and once communities express interest.

“The funding requirements for each First Nation community will vary depending on the model being proposed by each community and their distinct needs,” she wrote.

‘Stepping stone’

The Assembly of Manitoba Chief’s Dumas said he’s not convinced the bill work work, even if it’s funded appropriately.

His organization signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government in 2017 as a way to recognize a partnership and commitment to a nation-to-nation dialogue on child and family well-being.

But Dumas said Ottawa ignored that agreement and years of research the AMC did to create its own proposal for transforming child welfare services in Canada.

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said he’s choosing to stay optimistic about the possibilities under Bill C-92, but he still has concerns about implementation. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Instead, Dumas said Ottawa’s bill will lead to conflict and jurisdictional shirking, and could open the door to more provincial involvement rather than less.

“I think that the consequences will have to fall out, and I think we’re all going to have to reel from whatever it is that’s going to happen,” he said. 

But Ron Monias, CEO of the First Nations of Northern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority, said despite concerns, he’s hopeful the bill will act as a “stepping stone” to full First Nations jurisdiction over child welfare.

“The answer lies in the community. That’s where there needs to be capacity,” he said, adding he’s heard from some communities in his area that are curious about the opportunities.

MKO’s Settee says he’s also choosing to stay optimistic about the possibilities.

“Transformation is needed,” he said. “It has to happen, because we cannot perpetuate a system that is not working.”

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