Mr. Speaker, as always, it is a great honour to rise and speak on behalf of the people of Timmins—James Bay, particularly today, a historic day, when we are dealing with the need to reform the badly broken child welfare system and Bill C-92, an act respecting first nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.
I will say at the outset that we have waited a long time for this legislation. However, it has to be done right, because Canada has not earned the trust to have the right to make decisions about indigenous children. If we are going to move forward, we need to see a firm legislative commitment from the government that it will live up to its obligations, because we are talking about the lives of children.
I want to begin by mentioning some of these children who have died in the last two years. Tammy Keeash was taken from her home, where she was poor and indigenous, by a state that said it would keep her safe. She was found dead in the McIntyre Floodway in Thunder Bay. She was 14 years old. There was Chantel Fox; Kanina Sue Turtle; Jolynn Winter; Jenera Roundsky; Azraya Kokopenace; Courtney Scott, from Fort Albany; and Tina Fontaine.
I have met the Kokopenace family in Grassy Narrows. It is a family that has been poisoned by the corporate crimes in Grassy Narrows, where 80% of the children are suffering from contamination and poison. Little Azraya was taken from her family to be made safe, and she was found dead on the streets of Kenora.
Courtney Scott was taken from Fort Albany and died thousands of kilometres from home. I heard her younger sister speak. What she said of the treatment of indigenous children today, in 2019, in the child welfare system, will shock Canadians. They have to understand that what happened with the abuse in the residential schools is going on today.
Our nation has been very moved by the story of Chanie Wenjack. We all thought how amazing was this moment of Canada coming together to hear the story of that little boy trying to get home to Marten Falls. However, there are 165,000 children like Chanie Wenjack who are trying to find their way home.
If we do one thing in this Parliament, we are going to make sure that the legislation is done right. We are not going to do what has been done year in, year out, decade after decade, which is nice words, positive talk and all the oversight from the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and all the great committees that have looked into the abuse and neglect of indigenous children. Children are still dying to this day and are continuing to die.
We will begin by talking about Tina Fontaine. I urge my colleagues to read the report on how the system failed little Tina. She was taken from her home by the white state. People promised that they would keep her safe. They put her up in a hotel and left her on the streets of Manitoba. The Manitoba government does not even track the number of children they leave in hotels. In her final days, when she was listed as a missing person, she had contact with paramedics, police and child welfare services, and not one of them came to her aid, even though it was known that she was being preyed upon by a 62-year-old meth addict. When she tried to get help, she was told to ride her bike to a shelter.
It was the state's obligation to protect this child, and she was found murdered in the Red River. I always think of the powerful words of Sergeant O’Donovan, who found her body. He said that if it had been a litter of puppies, Canadians would be outraged. However, it was just another little indigenous girl.
This is what we here today to talk about fixing. There are many elements in this bill that I think are very reassuring in terms of the language of indigenous control of indigenous communities. The right of indigenous families and communities to decide the future of their own children has to be the beginning of the end of colonialism, because colonialism was constructed on the destruction of the Indian family.
However, unless we see the legislative elements that actually force the federal government to live up to its obligations, we will not be all that much further ahead, because Canada as a nation has used great and beautiful words for a long time and has failed indigenous children. It has simply not earned the right to be trusted on this.
This bill today comes to us after five non-compliance orders by a human rights tribunal that has forced the government into compliance with its legal obligations. The previous government spent nearly $6 million fighting Cindy Blackstock.
Michael Wernick, who is now retired, was the deputy minister who was involved in spying on Cindy Blackstock, because the government saw a woman who was speaking up for children as a threat to the Government of Canada.
It did not start today and it did not start with the current government or the previous government or the government before that. It goes all the way back to the decision that was made in the taking of the land and the breaking of the treaties. The fundamental principle was to take the Indian children away from their families and to destroy who they were as a people, which meets one of the key international tests of genocide.
Duncan Campbell Scott did not invent the residential school system, but he certainly perfected it. When he was faced with the appalling deaths of children in the residential schools from the chronic, systemic, deliberate underfunding by the federal government, he said:
It is readily acknowledged that Indian Children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this department which is geared toward a final solution of our Indian problem.
The term “final solution” was a homemade Canadian concept, and it was based on the destruction of the Indian people.
Why do we have to talk about history? It is one thing I have learned as a white guy. People say, “Why are we always talking about what happened back then?” We cannot go into any indigenous community without knowing how we got here. If we do not know how we got here, we do not know how we are going to go forward. It was the residential schools.
By the 1950s, the federal government realized that residential schools had been an abject failure, not for the abuse, the torture and the rape of the children, and not for the horrific low results of education. The government decided that it was a failure because it failed in its fundamental job of assimilation, so it decided to use the child welfare system. There was nothing accidental about the sixties scoop. The sixties scoop was a deliberate federal policy to take children far way from their identity and to basically turn them into white children.
In the book on residential schools by John Milloy, he writes:
Fostering was seen as a most effective method of breaking through the welfare bottleneck and ultimately, in tandem with integration, of closing [the residential] schools.... It had...the added allure of financial reward.... Children in foster homes could “be cared for less expensively since the maintenance costs are on the average less than for residential school placement”....
This was always the principle. It was about the destruction of identity while saving the taxpayers money. That is the fundamental principle that has led to the chronic underfunding of indigenous schools. It is the principle that has led to so much suffering and suicide in my own region, where we have had over 600 suicide deaths, almost entirely of youth, since the 1980s.
Governments in and governments out make all kinds of promises, but nothing changes. This was the fundamental principle Cindy Blackstock started to fight over 12 years ago with the federal government, that there was not anything accidental about what was happening in the child welfare system; it was a deliberate federal government policy of chronic underfunding by up to 40%.
At a certain point in the 1970s and 1980s, the government began to talk about indigenous control of child welfare, but the indigenous people were only allowed to control a broken, underfunded system. It is ironic that one of the only times the department of Indian affairs will agree to spend more money on children is when they are being taken from their families. That has been the policy. The sixties scoop has been called the millennial scoop. It is the 2018 and the 2019 scoop. There are more children in the control of the state now than there were at the height of the residential schools. The policies are still there.
When I see Bill C-92 and I hear talk about how we are going to move towards indigenous control and the indigenous right to develop their own family structures that are protected, where children are put into safe and culturally appropriate environments, I feel that is a great moment. However, if we do not see the legal statutory obligation of the federal government to close the funding gap, it is just a carry-on.
The ruling that the federal government was found guilty of systemic human rights abuse against indigenous children, in 2016, was a landmark moment, and I was very proud when the Prime Minister said that the government would not fight that ruling, but he did fight that ruling.
He fought that ruling to the tune of $1 million. He fought it through five non-compliance orders and each time the Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government was choosing its own financial interests over the interests of children. In the third non-compliance order, the tribunal found “the definition of Jordan’s Principle adopted by Canada was a calculated, analyzed and informed policy choice based on financial impacts and potential risks rather than on the needs or the best interests of First Nations children, which Jordan’s Principle is meant to protect and should be the goal of Canada’s programming”.
In that third non-compliance order the tribunal found Canada culpable in the deaths of Jenna Roundsky, Chantel Fox and Jolynn Winter because it knew that these children in Wapekeka were at risk. There was a suicide cluster and the government opted not to help those children because it said the funding request came at an awkward time. The government insisted that the lives of those children had to fit within the priorities of the Department of Indian Affairs, not that the Department of Indian Affairs was obligated to those children.
The Human Rights Tribunal found the government culpable in the deaths of these children. These were beautiful young children and they were loved. The failure of the government to respond in Wapekeka kicked off a horrific suicide crisis and we are still picking up the pieces.
I was in Thunder Bay with my good friend Sol Mamakwa, where we met with the family of a young suicide victim. How do we talk to a family in a community that has lost so many children? That child was taken from her family by the policies of this state and the Liberal government because it will not fund high schools in her community, so she was living in a boarding house at age 14 in Thunder Bay.
These are the ongoing deaths and suffering and abuse that result from this underfunding.
The fourth Human Rights Tribunal ruling found Canada's continued reliance on the incremental approach to equality fosters the same discrimination that spurred the initial complaint.
When Parliament ordered the Liberal government to end the shortfall in child welfare of $158 million, the government said if it was forced to spend that money it would be like throwing confetti around. The government had been found guilty of systemic underfunding, but it felt that if it was forced to end the systemic underfunding it would be a waste of money. The Liberals tell us that incremental change is the path forward and that things take time.
I think of Dr. Martin Luther King's incredible statement from a Birmingham jail that asked how we tell people who have been denied rights for 100 and some years to wait and change will come one day. The change has to come today.
Quite simply, we have to start from the principle that Canada has not earned and Canada has never had the credibility or the right to be trusted with the lives of indigenous children.
If the government comes forward with a recognition of its culpability, a recognition of humility, a recognition that we begin the transformation of our fundamental relationship by saying that the future lies with the children, that the rights of the children will be protected, that the basic family units and the cultural units of indigenous communities will no longer be targeted and undermined and destroyed through the chronic systems of the broken child welfare system, the broken education system and the failed housing system and mould crisis, that the lives of children will become the most valuable thing that we cherish in this country, we will be the nation we were meant to be.
When I look at this legislation I see good language, but we need to have it written into law. Jordan's principle has to be written into law because it was the government's continued interpretation of Jordan's principle that was found discriminatory. The statutory obligations to equity have to be written into law because the government cannot be trusted.
When I hear the indigenous services minister say that the government will sign the agreements band by band, nation by nation, community by community, and to trust him, there is no reason to trust. I respect the new indigenous services minister but in my many years here I have seen good Indian affairs ministers, I have seen bad Indian affairs ministers, I have seen lazy Indian affairs ministers and I have seen racist Indian affairs ministers.
The only thing I ever saw change in those 15 years was the concerted, unrelenting legal pressure to force the department to live up to its obligations. Whether we have a good Indian affairs minister or a bad one or an indifferent one, it does not make a difference. These are the legislative responsibilities.
What is it that we want out of this? We want to have clearly written into law the obligations of the federal government to recognize the jurisdiction of indigenous nations and organizations, and we support that. We want it written into law that they will respect and clarify what the best interests of the child are so that it is not vague, so that we will have strong national standards for ensuring equitable treatment with equitable funding. Without equitable funding we cannot move forward.
We want accountability measures for Canada that hold the government to account. We can see what has happened in Manitoba with the Tina Fontaine ruling, where the Conservative government said that with the Tina Fontaine tragedy there were no lessons to be learned. It is a travesty when so many children are on the streets of Winnipeg because of the broken system in Manitoba. In Ontario, the Doug Ford government cancelled the child advocate's office, the one voice for the most marginalized children, speaking up for children who had been sexually or physically abused, children who had died in the system. If we do not have those mechanisms to protect children, the system will continue to destroy lives and we will continue to see the loss of children.
We want to work with the government. We want to do whatever it takes to move the legislation forward but we will not go along with just more words, not after the deaths of so many, not after the Human Rights Tribunal, not after the work of young Cree leaders like Shannen Koostachin, who called out the government for its systemic failure to support the children.
We have to put the lives and the rights of children as a top priority. I have to say that it is going to cost a lot of money to meet those 150 years of broken promises, but I can tell colleagues that there is not a single greater investment that can be made in this nation than in the lives of the indigenous children who are on the reserves, on the streets and in the communities across our country. This is a young generation who are not sitting back, a young generation who are not going to be told what to do, a young generation that understands that hope is made real when it is given the opportunity to make change.
That is when reconciliation will be made real. Without that commitment by the federal government we are just continuing the long broken pattern.
I call on my colleagues in the government. We will do whatever it takes on our side to move this legislation through. However, this legislation has to work in the interests of children because Canada has not earned the right to be trusted with the rights and the lives of indigenous children.