Thank you, Madame Chair and colleagues, for the invitation to appear before the committee today to speak to these important and necessary changes to child and family services for first nations, Inuit and Métis people.
Allow me to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people.
Today my team and I are joined together and will be glad to answer questions shortly.
Protecting and promoting the well-being of indigenous children and families should be the foremost priority of the federal government and governments across Canada. However, that has not always been the case.
Every day in Canada, indigenous children are separated from their families, communities, languages and cultures. Too many indigenous children end up in care away from their communities. These already vulnerable children are forcibly taken from their homes without their parents' consent and all too often are deprived of their culture and identity, as well as the community supports that ensure their long-term well-being.
I think we can all agree that the current system does not work for indigenous children and families and that we cannot perpetuate the status quo in a child and family services system that has been rightly called a humanitarian crisis. Something is seriously wrong when indigenous children represent only 7.7% of all children under age 15 and yet make up 52% of children in care in this country.
Paternalistic policies keep these children isolated from the people they love. Too many young lives have been severely damaged and, in some cases, tragically lost.
This is precisely why Bill C-92 takes an entirely different approach. We have before us a bill that represents a set of national priorities that the government and indigenous groups worked on together, principles that put the child first; that enshrine the importance of culture, community, family and the well-being of that child; and that uphold the dignity of the family and of the child in any dealings with the child and family services system.
Our vision is of a system where indigenous peoples are in charge of their own child and family services, something we recognize should have been the case a long time ago.
Bill C-92 will finally put into law what indigenous peoples across the country have been asking of governments for decades: that their inherent jurisdiction be recognized and affirmed.
Should Bill C-92 be adopted, indigenous communities could exercise partial or full jurisdiction over child and family services. Because a one-size-fits-all approach does not work, it would be up to indigenous peoples to tailor the system to match the needs of their communities, and we are committed to working with individual communities to make sure those services are tailored to meet their needs.
The bill flows from an intensive period of engagement with first nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, communities and individuals, as well as the provinces and territories.
Since the emergency meeting convened by my predecessor in January 2018, there have been extensive meetings and consultations across the country in an effort to get this right. Even in the weeks preceding the introduction of this bill, we were incorporating the suggestions of indigenous groups and provincial and territorial partners.
For me, the truest sense of our efforts came from a statement by Senator Murray Sinclair that our approach “should serve as a model for implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Call-to-Actions in a meaningful and direct way.”
That doesn't mean the conversation starts there or stops there. There are no closed doors to our indigenous partners or the provinces and the territories. This bill and the children it aims to protect are only served if we collaborate and ensure their best interests.
Also, I am not suggesting that we've achieved perfection with this legislation. I am the first to admit there is still room for improvement, and I welcome this committee's input.
Bill C-92 is built on what indigenous peoples and child development experts have told us is required to protect children—to get them off to a good start in life. Under this act, indigenous child and family services will put the child first, consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's calls to action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This legislation sets out principles to ensure indigenous children and their families will be treated with dignity, and that their rights will be preserved. For instance, children could not be taken into care based on socio-economic conditions alone, as is often the case now. Instead of responding solely to crises, Bill C-92 prioritizes prevention. lt promotes things like prenatal care and support for parents. Both front-line workers and academics have told us that preventative care is the best predictor of child success and positive development. If circumstances dictate that interventions are needed, an indigenous child would only be apprehended when it is in the child's best interests, and priority would be given to placement with the child's own family or community, and with or near the child's siblings.
Under Bill C-92, when an indigenous group or community wishes to exercise their jurisdiction over child and family services and have their law prevail over federal, provincial and territorial laws, the Minister of lndigenous Services Canada and the government of each province and territory in which they are located will enter into three-way discussions around a coordination agreement. If an agreement is reached within 12 months following the request, the laws of the indigenous group or community would have force of law as federal law, and prevail over federal, provincial and territorial child and family services law. If no agreement is reached within 12 months, but reasonable efforts are made to do so, the indigenous law will also have force of law as federal law. ln practical terms this means that, should a government not act in good faith during the negotiation of a coordination agreement after 12 months of negotiations, indigenous child and family services law would have precedence over provincial law.
To promote a smooth transition and implementation of Bill C-92, Canada will explore the creation of distinctions-based transition governance structures. The co-developed governance structures would identify tools and processes to increase the capacity of communities as they assume responsibility over child and family services. We also know that funding needs to be part of the equation for this act to have maximum impact. We cannot presume that the funding models that have supported the current, broken system will be what indigenous groups want while exercising their jurisdiction. Those models and levels should be discussed and designed through the Bill C-92 coordination agreement process.
We pledge to work with partners to identify long-term needs and funding gaps. We are committed to strengthening the bill as it makes its way through Parliament. lt is essential that we work collaboratively and effectively to get this done. The necessity for this legislation goes well beyond partisan considerations—something I think we all understand and agree on. What matters is that at long last we are taking substantive action to overhaul the system, moving away from paternalistic policy failures of the past.
Bill C-92 is a concrete demonstration of our collective determination to forge a renewed relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples, one built on respect and the recognition and affirmation of rights. This proposed legislation is designed for a better future for indigenous children, for their families, and for the communities the bill promises to support and protect.
Ultimately, that is a better future for all of us, and for that, I hope I can count on your support.
Thank you, Madam Chair.