First Nations need billions in funding to take over child welfare services, says AFN regional chief


First Nations would need about $3.5 billion in funding over five years to effectively take over responsibility for child welfare services as they will be able to do under a new law that comes into force on Jan. 1, says Manitoba's Assembly of First Nations (AFN) regional chief.

Bill C-92, or An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families, passed earlier this year, carves out jurisdiction for Indigenous groups to take over their own child welfare systems and prioritizes placing Indigenous children taken into care with their own families and Indigenous communities. 

The law did not come with statutory funding, and First Nations leaders worry that without the financial resources to accompany the implementation of the new law, it will fail.

First Nations need about $3.5 billion over five years from Ottawa to help with the jurisdictional transition — covering all the complexities of taking over a child-welfare agency, such as legal issues and co-ordinating with provincial agencies — according to AFN Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart.

Depending on the type of existing funding arrangements in each jurisdiction, some First Nations could end up in debt "right out of the gate" when they take over child welfare services, Hart said.

"That is something we find unacceptable and unfair when we are taking over the sovereignty and jurisdiction of our children, and it needs to be properly and adequately resourced," he said.

Special chiefs assembly

First Nations chiefs are in Ottawa this week meeting at the Westin Hotel for the annual AFN special chiefs assembly. The chiefs will be debating and voting on resolutions setting out the priorities for National Chief Perry Bellegarde as the Trudeau government begins a new session of Parliament, with a speech from the throne Thursday.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is scheduled to speak and take questions from chiefs on Tuesday, the first day of the assembly, along with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister David Lametti and Heritage Minister Steven Guilbault are scheduled to speak to the chiefs on Wednesday.

First Nations child welfare is top of mind for those attending the meeting.

Many chiefs are still concerned over the federal government's decision to challenge the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order for compensation to First Nations children apprehended through the on-reserve child welfare system and in Yukon. 

The tribunal ordered $40,000 in compensation to First Nations children and some parents and grandparents impacted by the on-reserve child welfare system.

The government has been arguing that the tribunal decision is so flawed in law that it has no choice but to challenge it. 

"The issue ... is that the tribunal has issued a sweeping decision that will significantly impact ISC and Crown-Indigenous relations and that raises important questions of public policy that only cabinet can decide," Sony Perron, the associate deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), said in an affidavit filed with the Federal Court.

"I am pretty disheartened, but I am hoping Canada gets it right sooner rather than later because our kids are falling through the cracks as we speak," said Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand of the government's decision to fight the order.