Liberals table ‘historic’ Indigenous child welfare bill

Bill emphasizes need for the child-welfare system to promote preventative care and support families

If an Indigenous woman in labour in Winnipeg is being challenged on whether she is fit to parent her newborn, Treasury Board President Jane Philpott says she hopes a new law on Indigenous child welfare will help ensure that mother can keep her baby.

Too many Indigenous children are being placed in foster care, Philpott said.

“I hope anybody that has to do with the care of that mother thinks twice about what the best thing is to do for that child, because the best thing for that child is to be raised with her family, raised in their culture surrounded by their land and their lineage and their loved ones,” the former minister of Indigenous services said.

Philpott delivered an unusual off-the-cuff speech at the announcement of new legislation tabled Thursday in the House of Commons that seeks to affirm the right of Indigenous Peoples to have jurisdiction over child welfare in their communities.

The main purpose of the bill is to stop the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care — a situation that has become so dire in Canada it has been described as a humanitarian crisis. Currently, Indigenous children account for 52.2 per cent of children in foster care in private homes, according to 2016 census data.

The bill was tabled by Seamus O’Reagan, who took over as Indigenous-services minister from Philpott after last month’s cabinet shuffle. But Philpott’s role in bringing the legislation to life was on the tip of every tongue Thursday.

The legislation had been delayed while the government addressed concerns that it wouldn’t adequately respect Indigenous communities’ sovereignty and authority over their own children.

Thursday, First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders applauded the new bill as a turning point in Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination and reconciliation.

The bill, C-92, emphasizes the need for the child-welfare system to promote more preventative care and support for families instead of apprehending Indigenous children from their mothers.

It outlines factors that have to be taken into consideration when determining the best interests of an Indigenous child, including not only the child’s physical and emotional needs, but also cultural and spiritual upbringing; the child’s own views and preferences; and the importance to the child of an ongoing, positive relationship with his or her family and Indigenous community.

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It also will clearly indicate that no Indigenous child will be taken from a family solely due to poverty, lack of housing or the state of the parents’ health.

An order of preference will be established to ensure that if an Indigenous child must be removed from a parent, he or she will go to a family member or an adult who belongs to the same Indigenous community. The bill also stresses that siblings should be kept together when it is in their best interest.

O’Regan called the legislation “historic,” saying the goal is to see fewer Indigenous children taken from their families.

“Fewer children will be apprehended, more children will stay with their families, more children will stay in their communities and that will make for happier, healthier children in this country,” O’Reagan said.

Child welfare legislation was one of the first five calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said the legislation is an important first step, but he stressed the need to have it passed before Parliament dissolves for the October election.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a national organization representing Inuit in Canada, said he was encouraged by the co-operation offered by the Trudeau government to Indigenous communities in crafting this bill.

“This is a major milestone,” Obed said.

“Within child welfare, this legislation will hopefully be able to push back against the colonial legacy that we face all around us in this country in relation to federal legislation and provincial and territorial legislation and in general attitudes about our children and, in many cases, the disregard that most Canadians have had about the plight of Indigenous children in this country.”

Speaking of that Indigenous mother-to-be in Winnipeg or elsewhere in the country, Philpott pleaded for new ways to ensure her child remains safe.

“Maybe there are challenges for that mom. Maybe she wasn’t raised by her own mom and therefore might struggle. Or maybe she’s had health issues, maybe she’s been so traumatized in her life that she’s dependent on substances to be able to deal with her pain,” Philpott said.

“The solution for that mom and that baby is not to rip them apart. We’ve got to find another way … This is not just important for First Nations, Inuit and Metis families. This is essential for our entire country.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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