Evidence of meeting #146 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was services.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Isa Gros-Louis  Director General, Child and Family Services Reform, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Jean-François Tremblay  Deputy Minister, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Joanne Wilkinson  Assistant Deputy Minister, Child and Family Services Reform, Department of Indigenous Services Canada
Laurie Sargent  Assistant Deputy Minister, Aboriginal Affairs Portfolio, Department of Justice
Chief Robert Bertrand  Congress of Aboriginal Peoples
Cindy Blackstock  Executive Director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada
Jennifer Cox  Barrister and Solicitor and Project Lead, Enhanced Child Family Initiative, Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn
Paul Morris  Lead Counsel, Mi'kmaw Family and Children's Services of Nova Scotia
Duane Smith  Chair and Chief Executive Officer, Inuvialuit Regional Corporation

8:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Good morning, everybody. Welcome to our committee, the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

Today we are begining our review of Bill C-92, an act respecting first nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.

Before we start, I want to let the committee and our guests know that we unfortunately have had an administrative glitch and therefore don't have the name tags prepared and the documents in front of us as we normally do. The mail bag, however, is to arrive very shortly, and things will go back to normal. For now I'm going to ask every member to clearly state their name and position, because we don't have these in front of us. I'd ask members to jot theirs down, because we won't have name tags for a while.

This committee plays an important role in Parliament's goal of reconciliation and understanding the truth. We recognize the lands we hold the meeting on not just as a formality, but ask Canadians to reflect on whose land it was before settlers came. How does Canadian history work, and why are we in a position now in which settlement occurred in some areas 400 years ago and yet we still have many issues to address? It's an important process for all Canadians, especially here in Ottawa, for those watching.

We are on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people. We thank them for what they've done for all of us.

Let us move on to our presentation. We're honoured to have Minister Seamus O'Regan, who will open our discussion. He'll present his remarks, and then we'll have an opportunity to delve into the bill by having a chance to ask him some questions.

Whenever you're ready, minister, perhaps you could introduce your team with you. We know who you are, but we'd like to know the others as well.

It's over to you.

8:35 a.m.

St. John's South—Mount Pearl Newfoundland & Labrador

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan LiberalMinister of Indigenous Services

Madam Chair, I take it as probably a very good indicator of how closely we've been working that I know them all only by their first names.

8:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

All right, well, why don't we start with you?

8:35 a.m.

Isa Gros-Louis Director General, Child and Family Services Reform, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Good morning. My name is Isa Gros-Louis.

8:35 a.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

Ah, Gros-Louis. It's a revelation to me.

8:35 a.m.

Director General, Child and Family Services Reform, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Isa Gros-Louis

I'm the DG responsible for child and family services at the Department of Indigenous Services Canada.

8:35 a.m.

Jean-François Tremblay Deputy Minister, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Good morning.

My name is Jean-François Tremblay; I'm also known as JF. I'm the deputy minister at Indigenous Services Canada.

8:35 a.m.

Joanne Wilkinson Assistant Deputy Minister, Child and Family Services Reform, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Good morning.

My name is Joanne Wilkinson. I'm the assistant deputy minister for child and family services reform with Indigenous Services Canada.

8:35 a.m.

Laurie Sargent Assistant Deputy Minister, Aboriginal Affairs Portfolio, Department of Justice

Good morning.

I'm Laurie Sargent. I am assistant deputy minister of aboriginal affairs portfolio at Justice Canada.

8:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Welcome. I think we're ready any time you are.

April 30th, 2019 / 8:35 a.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

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.

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

Thank you.

We'll open questioning with the Liberal side and MP Yves Robillard.

Go ahead.

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Thank you, Minister O'Regan, for your presentation and for your work on this bill.

I want to address the process of developing this bill. The representatives of the indigenous communities who speak before this committee often tell us not to make decisions in their regard without them. Can you tell us about the consultation process that took place before this bill was drafted?

8:45 a.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

We had some 65 different meetings and heard from some 2,000 people from right across the country about this, giving us an understanding of what exactly it will mean.

More often than not, it's met with disbelief. I spent quite a bit of time this week in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Their attitude toward the proposed legislation, Bill C-92, is mixed. It is fair to say—and I look at my colleague, Robert—that in Manitoba there seems to be a belief that we will not actually do this. Manitoba doesn't believe we will actually come forward with this legislation.

In British Columbia it's certainly been more forceful. It has helped us along. This is the legislation it has been waiting for. Many of the provinces have built up capacity on the ground where they were already looking at child and family services legislation within their communities, so they are anxious to have a national blanket that would protect them within federal law and that allow others to reach the same capacity as they have.

In other areas, where the provinces are more heavy-handed when it comes to youth and social services, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, there is greater trepidation about whether or not this is real and meaningful. We've spent most of our time assuring them that that is the case.

Manitoba, for instance, is introducing something called the bringing our children home act. We are encouraging legislation from the ground when it comes to child and family services. What we're pointing out to the provinces is that what we are proposing with Bill C-92 would work concurrently with what they want to develop on the ground. It is unique to their circumstances and fits nicely with what we want to do nationally.

Sometimes in dealing with a number of Cree women who are confronted with the idea of child and family services and taking them back to their communities, they have rightfully said, when they walked away, that they were walking away with more questions than they had had before. I saw that as a good sign. Those groups are about to develop their own child and family services based on the wants and needs and capabilities of their communities, and we are providing a shelter within the federal framework.

That is exciting, because it will be more effective. We have effectively doubled the amount of money for child and family services over the past two and a half years, somewhere up to $1.2 billion. It's a substantial amount of money, and it remains there. The difficulty is that 80% of the funding that we carry on through the provinces and through our agencies goes toward the “protective services”. That is an ironic term that basically refers to the security and everything that surrounds the abduction of a child. So 80% of the budget is about the abduction of the child and the associated costs, which are many.

There is a hope too that there will be more money freed up there, because the communities themselves.... We are hell-bent on making sure that we drastically reduce the number of children who are taken from their families and that, over time, we put an increased light on preventive care and prenatal care, so that we never again reach that position.

8:50 a.m.

Liberal

Yves Robillard Liberal Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

An essential aspect of this bill is the principle of the best interests of the child.

Can you explain in more detail what this means? What does this mean in the context of the bill, and how will this principle be applied?

8:50 a.m.

Deputy Minister, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Jean-François Tremblay

The bill states that the first important component is the best interests of the child. The concept is well established and understood by the provinces and the people working in child welfare. We needed to ensure that the first component in the legislation was the best interests of the child. The groups that we've worked with in recent months told us this.

We added the issues of cultural continuity, as you know, and substantive equality. The important thing is to know the best interests of the child. In this context, if we look at clause 16, for example, we can see the process. The clause states that it's in the best interests of the children to place them near their families and in their cultural communities, since they can benefit from access to their parents and communities. The best interests of the child must be understood in this context.

Ms. Gros-Louis, do you have anything to add?

8:55 a.m.

Director General, Child and Family Services Reform, Department of Indigenous Services Canada

Isa Gros-Louis

Yes.

I think that it's important to also point out that this concept is made up of standards. We'll ensure that these standards are adopted by the provinces, territories and all indigenous peoples. We refer to these national standards, and we want to ensure that the values and standards will at least be applied across Canada, by everyone.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal MaryAnn Mihychuk

We're going to move now to MP Cathy McLeod.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

Thank you, Minister, for joining us this morning.

Just as we voted at second reading, the Conservatives certainly agree that this is not a partisan issue. We'll mostly be looking at technical concerns and clarifications as we consider this bill in depth over the next number of meetings. I certainly want it on the record that for far too long things have been very tragic in many communities, and this will hopefully provide clarity, if it's done properly and not rushed.

Before I start my technical questions, when you used the word “abduction”, I know that we have hard-working social workers across this country. Where communities have taken on child protection services, they have to move them to other care in the best interests of the child. For you to use the word “abduction”, I think, is to insult social workers and child services organizations, including indigenous organizations, across this country. Could you clarify why you used the word “abduction”, as opposed to what these agencies are trying to do in the best interests of the children?

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

It's not a word that I use easily, as my mother has been in similar situations as a nurse in the north where she had to forceably remove children from families.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

You're calling her a kidnapper.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

No, I'm saying—

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

That's what “abduction” means.

8:55 a.m.

Liberal

Seamus O'Regan Liberal St. John's South—Mount Pearl, NL

I'm aware. I use the word “abduction” quite purposely because from the point of view of the family, that is what they see. With all due respect to my mother and her nursing colleagues, my motivation at the moment is the family, and what the family sees is an abduction.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod Conservative Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo, BC

With respect, Minister, I think that with using that word.... Unfortunately, there are cases where children have been removed in the past, and calling nurses and social workers basically kidnappers, I find very offensive.

Anyway, to get into more of the specifics of this bill...I think we've had a conversation about this before, so I think it's best if we use an example. Let's say in Alberta there's a Métis child who lives in Calgary who has no connection with their community, and there has not been an agreement of any sort in the past.

This legislation imposes federal legislation on the Alberta government that might have different requirements for indigenous versus non-indigenous children. All of a sudden the Alberta government will have this legislation with requirements around how they deal with a Métis child who might be living in Calgary—or you even have gone as far back as putting prenatals in here. Let's say you have a mother, what is it going to mean for the Province of Alberta when they have a piece of federal legislation that states they need to be very careful about...? Can you tell me what that clause will do in Alberta?

The prenatal clause is providing a prenatal service. Here I think we can all agree with preventative service, with the best interests in mind before the child is born. The provision of the service is to be given priority over all other services. When you have a pregnant Métis woman living in Calgary, what will the legislation require of the Province of Alberta?