By Shari Narine
The talking has to end. It’s time for the British Columbia government to listen to the changes First Nations want to make for child welfare and it’s time for those changes to be implemented.
“I believe that the First Nations people have the answers, have the solutions on how we can improve and support our children and families in our communities. We have the answers. We just need to be listened to,” said Debra Foxcroft, president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
Foxcroft, along with 400 other First Nations leaders, front line workers and representatives from Aboriginal children and family organizations, met with the Ministry of Child and Family Development at the BC First Nations Child and Family Gathering May 30 and 31 in Vancouver.
But it was the same old same old, says Foxcroft.
“There was not a lot of commitment. I think we were frustrated with that lack of action. I think we were prepared to move forward and provide some solutions for our children and families,” she said.
“It’s disappointing that we’re not seen as a priority when you have a premier that was elected on a platform of family first and they don’t put our children first. We’re actually last in terms of priorities,” said Foxcroft, pointing to the lack of input Indigenous leaders and First Nations delegated authorities have in provincial government policy.
Instead, conference attendees listened to Minister Stephanie Cadieux commit $100 million to move forward with the Plecas Report.
Bob Plecas was mandated by the ministry to provide an internal examination of practice, policies and standards and recommend changes following the J.P. case, in which a BC Supreme Court ruled the province's child protection service abused its authority and ultimately allowed a father to molest his child while the toddler was in the ministry's care.
The report was presented to the minister in December of last year and has been met with much criticism from the Aboriginal community. It has been viewed as a “top-down” approach as it did not involve consultation with the Aboriginal community and, points out Foxcroft, the committee that will be looking to implement the changes does not include Indigenous representation.
While Cadieux was giving the go-ahead to the Plecas report, she was also giving the go-ahead to a working group that would examine issues, such as an aging out strategy and poverty-reduction strategy.
The exact make-up of the working group has yet to be established, but Cheryl Casimer, First Nation Summit political executive, wants to see federal representation along with provincial representation, and she wants the majority of the members to be First Nations. She’d like to see the group in place in the next few weeks.
But how recommendations from the working group will balance with recommendations from the Plecas report is unclear, said Casimer.
“(Cadieux) said she doesn’t really have a choice in the matter, that the decision was made and she needs to move ahead with it. And we said, ‘Why would you do that when you just said you want partnership with us?’” said Casimer. “I don’t know where she’s going to go from there. It doesn’t make sense for her to go ahead with it.”
Casimer is not optimistic that change will come at the provincial level despite a new deputy minister with MCFD, who is promising to go to communities and talk to leadership.
Casimer is more inclined to believe that the changes that will have an impact on the high number of Indigenous children in care and the high number of Indigenous children who die in care, will come at the federal level.
“The federal government has said they’re fully committed to working with First Nations in addressing some of these issues,” she said. “They’ve got the fire at their feet to get things done right now.”
Casimer says the way to make changes could be to set collective standards through a national First Nation child welfare act, bypassing the provinces entirely. Such legislation is listed as number four in the 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC’s first five calls to action address changes to the child welfare system.
Foxcroft points to the ruling earlier this year by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which calls on the federal government to fund child welfare services on reserve in the same manner off-reserve child welfare is funded, and Canada’s full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as “tools” that can be used by First Nations at the federal level to bring about change.
“They now are saying there needs to be a full reform of child welfare in Canada,” said Foxcroft. “So there’s definitely some openness to having some change.”
“From the province it’s the same stuff we hear all the time, but it’s fresh what we’re hearing from the federal government,” she said. “We recognize there’s an opportunity. We know the window’s not going to be open for long and we need to make sure we take full advantage of it.”
Casimer says she is looking forward to a summit that federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett indicated will be held this fall with First Nations leadership across the country to talk about child welfare.
British Columbia First Nations will be attending with an action plan, which they will send in advance, she adds.
“There is still a lot of work to do and I know it’s going to take some time but I believe that our kids are worth it and we need to do it now and not years from now,” said Foxcroft.
“As leadership we’ve decided you can either work with us, Canada and British Columbia, or we’re just going to what we need to do,” said Casimer.