Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I rise to speak to Bill C-92, which, if passed, would be a significant step forward in the process of reconciliation and in the renewal of the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.
Bill C-92 sets out the legislative framework and the principles needed to guide work among first nations, Inuit and Métis nations, provincial and territorial partners, and the Government of Canada to achieve truly meaningful reform in child and family services.
The bill before us follows wide-ranging and intensive engagement with indigenous partners, provincial and territorial representatives, youth, in particular youth who have lived experience in the child and family welfare system, and experts and advocates.
In January 2018, our government held an emergency national meeting on indigenous child and family services to collaborate on finding solutions to keep families together. In the report on the emergency meeting, the overarching theme that emerged was summarized as follows: “It is clear that the time is now to work towards transferring jurisdictional control from the federal government to First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis Nation through legislation”.
The minutes go on to say:
Legislative reforms are needed that respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples to lead the systems, developing standards and practices that reflect Indigenous laws and cultural practices, where the First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation have the right to look after their children and children and youth have rights to be raised in language and culture.
Legislative reforms are needed that respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples to lead the systems, developing standards and practices that reflect Indigenous laws and cultural practices.
At the end of the emergency meeting, the Government of Canada made six commitments to address the overrepresentation of indigenous children and youth in care in Canada.
First, it will continue to fully implement the orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, including Jordan's principle, and reform first nations child and family services, including by moving to a flexible funding model.
Second, it will work with partners to shift the focus of programming to culturally appropriate prevention, early intervention and family reunification.
Third, it will also work with our partners to support communities in drawing down jurisdiction in child and family services, including exploring co-developed federal legislation.
Fourth, it will participate in and accelerate the work at tripartite and technical tables that are in place across the country in supporting reform.
Fifth, it will support Inuit and Métis leadership in their work to advance meaningful, culturally appropriate reform of child and family services.
Sixth, it will create a data strategy with the provinces, territories and indigenous partners to increase interjurisdictional data collection, sharing and reporting to better understand the rates and reasons for apprehension.
Similar calls for legislation have come from call to action 4 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the National Advisory Committee on First Nations Child and Family Services and were reflected in the Assembly of First Nations' resolutions of May and December 2018, to name a few.
Throughout the summer and fall of that year, this government actively engaged with national, regional and community organizations and with individuals, nearly 2,000 across 65 meetings, to co-develop a legislative approach that has brought us to this point.
As a result of this intensive engagement process, on November 30, 2018, the former minister of Indigenous Services stood together with national indigenous leaders to announce that the Government of Canada would introduce co-developed federal legislation on indigenous child and family services.
I am heartened to share the words of Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who called these engagements “a model for implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Call-to-Actions in a meaningful and direct way.”
This is engagement that will continue as the legislation is implemented and afterward through the exploration of a national transition governance structure, with a distinctions-based underpinning, that would have representation from indigenous partners, provinces and territories.
The group could, for example, identify tools and processes to help increase the capacity of communities as they make progress toward assuming responsibility for child and family services. Such a committee could also assess gaps and recommend mechanisms, as needed, to assist with implementation, in the spirit of partnership and in the spirit of co-operation. In addition, Bill C-92 would provide a review of the legislation every five years, in collaboration with Métis, Inuit and first nation partners.
The bill is entirely consistent with our government's commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action and our commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The bill has two objectives. First is to affirm the inherent right of indigenous peoples to self-determination in relation to child and family services. The bill is formed on that foundation and would provide flexible pathways for indigenous groups across Canada to determine a way forward that would best meet the needs of their children, families and communities. Second, the bill would set out guiding principles that would guide the provision of child and family services to indigenous children in nearly every region and every jurisdiction throughout this great country.
These principles are national in scope. They are a base standard to ensure that all services for first nation, Inuit and Métis children are provided in a manner that takes into account the individual child's needs, including the need to be raised with a strong connection to the child's family, culture, language and community.
These principles are the following: the best interests of the child, cultural continuity and substantive equality. Setting these standards is in line with TRC call to action 4, which calls for the establishment of national standards, and with what we heard from partners and community members during the extensive engagement process across Canada. To be clear, these are minimum base standards that can be built upon and adapted by communities to meet their unique cultures as well as their unique traditions.
Participants also agreed that the proposed legislation should emphasize the importance of keeping indigenous families together through the implementation of prevention services and early intervention, measures that promote family preservation and reunification.
The legislation would propose an order of preference for placement: first, the family; then the extended family, other members of the community and other indigenous families; then a non-indigenous adult. The placement order is intended to ensure that children remain connected to their culture and their community and that they preserve their attachment and emotional ties to the family.
The bill would establish the importance of preventive care over apprehension. This legislation would give priority to child and family services that promote preventive care, including prenatal services, over the provision of services that promote the removal of a child at the time of birth.
Focusing on preventive care would help promote bonding between mothers and newborns and family unification and attachment and would prevent the removal of newborns. These principles, child-centred and family-centred, were referenced repeatedly throughout the engagement sessions, as was the critical importance of prevention programs.
It is clear that services provided to indigenous children and families should respect and respond in a way that is tailored to their needs and unique cultural experiences. Considerable emphasis was placed on the importance of culture and maintaining the health and well-being of children and families, including through community support networks and the involvement of elders.
It was also clear from the engagement process that federal legislation must respect the inherent right of first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to self-determination.
This legislation starts at the point of affirming the inherent right of indigenous peoples to oversee child and family services and sets out flexible pathways for indigenous groups to create their own laws that best meet the needs of their children and their communities. Indeed, if an indigenous group chose to establish its own laws through this mechanism, the legislation makes it clear that in the case of a conflict between indigenous law and a provincial or a federal law, the indigenous law would prevail. For added clarity, the bill would not prevail over any existing treaties, self-government agreements or other agreements that already address indigenous child and family services, though communities could choose to adopt it in these situations.
Partners emphasized that the concept of one-size-fits-all is entirely inappropriate in this situation. Any federal legislation on child and family services must recognize that the needs, desires and priorities of indigenous communities in child and family services vary from one community to another and from one province to another and can evolve and change over time. As a result, there was broad consensus that federal, provincial and territorial mechanisms to support indigenous child and family services should have the flexibility needed to address a range of circumstances and variables.
Importantly, the bill also states that an indigenous child would not be apprehended on the basis of socio-economic conditions alone. This is something we heard loud and clear from partners during the consultation process. Indeed, the principle of substantive equality, the third of the guiding principles, is critical to ensuring that the focus of all providers remains on achieving equitable outcomes and equal opportunities for indigenous children and their families.
Substantive equality is the underpinning of other important initiatives, such as Jordan's principle, which ensures that first nations children across Canada can access the services, products and supports they need when they need them. Since 2016, our government has committed $680 million to support requests through Jordan's principle, which has helped provide first nations youth with a wide range of services to meet their health, social and educational needs.
The positive impact is undeniable. As of January 31 of this year, more than 214,000 requests for services and supports have been approved for first nations children under Jordan's principle. Our government is committed to ensuring that this important work continues. I had the pleasure of being with the minister last week in Winnipeg, with several other MPs, where he announced $1.2 billion for Jordan's principle going forward.
We are all aware that indigenous peoples have been treated atrociously. We are all familiar with the horror of residential schools and the 60s scoop.
Even so, first nations, Inuit and Métis children are still being taken away from their families, their communities, their language and their culture at an alarming and unjustifiable rate. More than half of the foster children in Canada are indigenous. There are many factors involved, of course, but there is no doubt that the system is failing indigenous children, indigenous families and indigenous communities.
We are all aware of the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples, exemplified by the horror of residential schools and by the tragedy of the sixties scoop. Over the course of the last three years, significant investments have been made to begin addressing these issues. Our government has nearly doubled the annual funding for indigenous child and family services since we took office, bringing it to more than $1.1 billion annually.
Through budget 2016, we provided $635 million over five years as a first step in addressing funding gaps in first nations child and family services. These funds have been used to support agency service providers, including enhanced funding for smaller agencies. It has supported the rollout of prevention-focused funding models across the country and more front-line service providers.
These funds are already at work. For example, last August, we announced that the Huu-ay-aht First Nation in British Columbia would receive $4.2 million, close to $850,000 a year for five years, to support new child and family services initiatives. Some 20% of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation children were in a form of government care, a situation that led the community leadership to declare a public health emergency and undertake a major study to identify solutions. With funding from Canada and other partners, the Huu-ay-aht First Nation is now implementing the 30 recommendations of this study, entitled “Safe, Healthy and Connected, Bringing Huu-ay-aht Children Home”.
Existing pregnancy support and parenting education programs are being expanded. Family and protection support workers are being hired. New opportunities for youth engagement and cultural awareness are being developed. In February 2018, we also changed policies to fund the actual costs of indigenous-led CFS agencies, meaning that they can focus on prevention and services to better support families and reduce the number of children in care.
In budget 2018, the government committed a further $1.4 billion in new funding over six years to address the funding pressures facing first nations CFS agencies. This includes funding to increase prevention resources for communities so that children are safe and families can stay together. As part of the ongoing efforts toward program reform, a total of $105 million of funding in the current year has been allocated to the community well-being and jurisdiction initiative. This new funding stream focuses on supporting first nations communities to undertake prevention activities to help families at risk stay together in communities whenever possible and, at the same time, allow communities to exercise their rightful jurisdiction over child and family services.
Funding and innovation can only go so far when dealing with a broken and failing system. It is failing generations of indigenous children and it must be reformed. The existing indigenous child and family services system has led to what has rightly been described as a humanitarian crisis. This bill represents a critical step in addressing that crisis, and I urge all members to join me in supporting it.