Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise today to speak on a historic piece of legislation, Bill C-92, an act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.
It is also an honour to welcome over 30 students from Mr. Dingwall's grade 12 politics class at Humberside Collegiate Institute in my riding. They are here to study xenophobia and refugees, but the concerns and the aims of that study have a link to this legislation. The link is that their study and this legislation both identify key areas of inclusion, of the promotion of diversity, and of the remediation of historical injustices.
Let us talk about Bill C-92.
Bill C-92 seeks to do two very important things. First, it would affirm the jurisdiction of indigenous peoples in relation to child and family services. Second, it sets out several principles, including the best interests of the child, cultural continuity and substantive equality, that would be applicable on a national level to the provision of child and family services to indigenous children.
Let us start with my past role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage in 2017. At that point, I had the privilege of engaging with first nations, Inuit and Métis leaders and elders, and subsequently assisting in the co-development of a different bill, Bill C-91, which aims to promote and preserve indigenous languages in Canada. I am very pleased to see that this bill, a companion bill, seeks to enshrine the importance of culture and language when it comes to determining what is in the best interests of the child.
When indigenous children are navigating our child and family services system, their culture and language must be taken into account and must be protected.
Indigenous leaders across this country have called on successive governments to make changes to address the overrepresentation of first nations, Inuit and Métis children in the child and family services system. They have been doing that important advocacy work on this file for over a decade and have highlighted the important voices of indigenous children from across the country to shed light on the shortcomings of our current child and family services systems.
It is undeniable that the levels of indigenous children in care have reached the point of what has been described as a humanitarian crisis. Indigenous children under 15 make up 7.7% of the Canadian population, but they account for 52.2% of children in foster care in private homes. That is a staggering statistic—7.7% of the population, yet 52.2% of the children in foster care. Incredibly, we know that there are more indigenous children who have been removed from their homes and placed in the child welfare system, right now in 2019, than there were at the height of the residential school system, which is such a shameful legacy in Canadian history.
We also know that often indigenous children are separated from their families and communities, which deprives them of their language, their culture, and their connection to their people. That is absolutely and categorically unacceptable. It is vital that we address the root causes that have led to this humanitarian crisis, including such things as poverty, intergenerational trauma, and culturally biased child welfare policies and practices. That is what Bill C-92 will address.
Our current child and family welfare system is failing indigenous peoples and has been failing them for some time. It is for this reason that our government is taking steps today with Bill C-92 to redress the situation.
Our goal as a government has always been to support legislation that respects the principle of self-determination of indigenous people and legislation that advances what we would call meaningful reconciliation. These two objectives were the basis for our actions taken while crafting this legislation.
Recognizing the urgency of addressing these issues, the Minister of Indigenous Services at the time hosted an emergency meeting on indigenous child and family services in January 2018. During that meeting, our government had the opportunity to hear from experts, advocates, indigenous partners, and provincial and territorial people, but most importantly from youth, such as the youth who are here today from my riding, but especially youth from right around the country who had a lived experience of navigating the child and family services system. It is of the utmost importance to continue to elevate the voices of those with first-hand experience so that we can learn from their experiences and make the legislative changes that address the problems individuals face when accessing our child and family services system.
Following that emergency meeting back in January of 2018, 65 sessions were held during the summer and fall of 2018 to engage with people around the country, whether in Toronto or Winnipeg, from coast to coast to coast.
That engagement, which was mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous Services, engaged 2,000 individuals in different sessions, including representatives of first nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, as well as treaty nations, self-governing first nations, provinces and territories.
In January of 2019, further in-person engagement sessions with indigenous partners and provincial and territorial representatives were conducted to consult on the proposed content of Bill C-92.
What is critical is what we learned in those consultations. We learned that Canadians care about reforming child and family services in a way that better meets the needs of indigenous peoples. It is clear that Canadians are shocked by the statistics with which I started my discussion and my contribution to this debate. This is an issue that has been raised by many of my colleagues in the House. It is certainly an issue that my constituents in Parkdale—High Park feel strongly about.
Whether they are students at Humberside Collegiate or at any of the other secondary institutions in the riding, whether they are younger people or older people, constituents of all backgrounds have told me, “I am not an indigenous person, but I know we need to remedy a historical injustice. To do right by the colonial and racist legacy of the residential school system and the policies and practices put in place by successive governments for 152 years, we have to implement legislation to remedy those wrongs.” Bill C-91, coupled with Bill C-92, does exactly that.
People have spoken to me about ensuring that we have culturally appropriate child and family services to protect the vibrancy of cultures. I have often told them it is important for people such as me or random constituents to engage with and learn more about and understand indigenous history, knowledge and culture. It is even more important to restore that knowledge and understanding to indigenous communities without doing it in a paternalistic way, as in past practices, but by co-developing solutions with indigenous people and empowering them to implement the solutions they feel are appropriate for their communities. That is what the bill will do.
Let me explain that indigenous children are being removed from their homes and communities in greater numbers than they were at the height of the residential school system. We have had conversations regarding the next steps our government must take to protect indigenous children, and as a result we are affirming the jurisdiction of indigenous peoples over child and family services.
Bill C-92 does not provide a one-size-fits-all model. Rather, it would allow indigenous people to exercise partial or full jurisdiction over child and family services at a pace that promotes the well-being of their communities. The bill would allow indigenous groups to exercise their inherent and rightful jurisdiction over child and family services, which will result in their laws prevailing over federal laws and laws of the provinces and territories, in the case of a dispute between the two. This is a very important point, because it gives meaning to this notion of self-determination and self-governance.
The legislation also sets out a robust mechanism whereby indigenous groups would enter into tripartite coordination agreements with the federal government and the provincial government of each province in which the indigenous group is located to work together for up to 12 months to reach a tripartite agreement. Along with affirming jurisdiction, the bill also sets out principles such as the best interests of the child, cultural continuity and substantive equality around the provision of child and family services to indigenous children, applicable at the national level.
Let me pause here to say that this is something we are working hard to implement across government. The analogy I would draw to this “best interests” provision is to a different bill that I have been privileged to work on as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice, Bill C-78. It is a family law reform bill that again entrenches the best interests of the child, but importantly, it echoes the language we find in Bill C-92, language that talks about the spiritual, cultural and linguistic continuity for indigenous children remaining with indigenous family settings. That is critical to Bill C-78, and also critical to Bill C-92.
With regard to decisions as to what is in the best interests of the children, Bill C-92 elaborates several factors that need to be taken into account. They are the child's physical, emotional and psychological safety; the child's security and well-being; the child's cultural, linguistic, religious and spiritual upbringing; and the maintenance of an ongoing, positive relationship with the family, community and indigenous group to which they belong.
Let me restate that, because it is so critical and gets to the heart of what the bill is about: When there is a child welfare situation that involves removing a child from their original home to a foster care type of setting, we need to think about what is in that child's best interests.
How we evaluate that is by thinking about continuity in the child's ongoing positive relationship with his or her family and with his or her indigenous group. That is the key in what we are talking about here. That creates stability for the children through the connection for the children to their language and, importantly, to their territory. By emphasizing these factors, the legislation would ensure that child and family services take into account cultural context when making decisions as to what is in the best interest of first nations, Inuit and Métis kids. The goal is to decrease the number of indigenous children who are separated from their families and their communities.
Additionally, when decisions are being made about what is in the best interests of children, this bill would prioritize a shift from apprehension to prevention, thereby promoting preventive care that supports the entire family.
What does this mean?
We know, unfortunately, that too often child welfare advocates will arrive at a situation and say that a child needs to be removed from a family setting because of the conditions in which the family lives. The solution is not then to remove more children; the solution is to repair and correct the conditions in which indigenous people live. That has to be the solution. It bears common sense scrutiny. It bears logical scrutiny.
It also is completely consistent with an approach toward reconciliation whereby we accept and acknowledge historical racism and the legacy of colonialism and move forward together with indigenous peoples to correct that legacy. That is what this bill is doing by targeting this specific issue.
How does it do it?
The bill says that a child should not be apprehended solely on the basis of his or her socio-economic conditions. Instead, it calls upon governments to work with families to find solutions that uplift all family members and keep the child in that home. Moreover, if apprehension and placement are deemed necessary to ensure the best interests of the child, then Bill C-92 delineates an order of priority to be respected when placing that child, and this order is important.
If apprehension needs to occur, this is the classification, and it is a prioritized list: first, keeping the child with one of the child's parents; second, keeping the child with another member of the child's family who is an adult; third, keeping the child with an adult who belongs to the same indigenous group, community or people; fourth, keeping the child with an adult who belongs to an indigenous group, community or people other than the one to which the child belongs.
That is an important prioritization, because it emphasizes exactly what we are trying to do: We are not trying to create further rupture between indigenous people and their culture and communities, but trying to restore and enhance that connection. This order of priority emphasizes family members first, and subsequently adults belonging to the same indigenous group, community or people.
By formalizing in law the need to keep indigenous children with indigenous communities, Bill C-92 takes a huge step forward in protecting cultural continuity by taking into account the things that I have been mentioning when determining what is in the best interests of the child: language, culture, connection with family.
To give a mundane example, if a child who speaks Cree lives on a reserve in rural Manitoba and if a removal is required, the services do not remove that child all the way to Winnipeg. First, they make every effort not to remove the child. If a removal needs to occur, they keep the child on the same territory with the same community, with people who will continue to speak Cree to the child so that the child can maintain that connection to their people. It is that straightforward.
The importance of cultural continuity is further enshrined in this legislation by establishing an ongoing obligation to reassess the possibility for an indigenous foster child to reside with one of the child's parents or an adult member of his or her family.
That is the kind of legislation that people in Canada want, including those in my riding and including the very patient people who have been sitting here from Humberside Collegiate Institute.
What they have said to me over and over again, and what I have heard in my riding and right around the country when I was working in my capacity as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, is that indigenous reconciliation is the responsibility for all of us. It is not simply the responsibility of indigenous communities or the government vis-à-vis indigenous communities; it is the collective responsibility of the 36 million people who inhabit this country to move on that path together.
Bill C-92 is a milestone piece of legislation that would have significant impacts on the lives of indigenous youth, their families and their communities. It is an important step in advancing meaningful reconciliation and in implementing the vital recommendations made by the TRC. I want to thank the indigenous leaders across Canada who have advocated on this issue for years, as well as the current minister and the previous minister, the member for Markham—Stouffville, for their invaluable contributions, without which this legislation would not have been possible.
We are committed to working collaboratively with all levels of government and all relevant stakeholders to continue to advance the well-being of indigenous peoples, but as I said during the course of my remarks, we will not do this in a paternalistic or colonial way, but in a manner that empowers indigenous peoples and allows them to make decisions for their communities and for themselves.
Bill C-92 is an important first step in that direction, and I strongly urge every member in the House to support it.