Get on with tackling outstanding issues with Indigenous child welfare: Sinclair

By Kristy Kirkup
THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA- Enough talk about the over-representation of Indigenous kids in the child welfare system, it’s time for action, says the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Murray Sinclair, now an independent senator, says it’s critical to get all the federal, provincial and territorial players moving now – a message he plans to deliver this week at an emergency conference in Ottawa with officials and experts from across the country.

“The most important thing right now is get the parties that are involved in child welfare in Canada … to start doing something,’’ he said in a recent interview, adding that the child welfare system is “frozen by analysis, so they are paralysed into thinking their job is too huge and they are not going to be able to fashion any type of a proper resolution.’’

Sinclair said he hopes the conference will focus on “how do we move in concert with each other, so provincial, territorial and federal government officials talking about what is it that each party has to do in order to address the over-representation and unnecessary over-representation of Aboriginal children in care.’’

The impact of that over-representation can be devastating. There is, for instance, an unmistakable link between the number of children who end up in care and the sky-high rate of Indigenous people who end up in jail, Sinclair said. As chair of the TRC, Sinclair spent six years documenting Canada’s residential school legacy – a government-funded, church-operated assimilation program from the 1870s to 1996 – and issued 94 recommendations, including several involving child welfare reform that topped the list.

Among other things, the commission called on federal, provincial, territorial
and Aboriginal governments to commit to reducing the number of Indigenous
children in care by taking action – including providing adequate resources to
allow Indigenous communities and child welfare organizations to keep families
together where possible and keep children in culturally-appropriate
environments.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and her senior officials seem
prepared to take additional steps to confront systemic failures, Sinclair
said. But he warned them against getting caught up in a “well-intentioned
dialogue’’ without being able to point to concrete changes.

“At a certain point in time, there’s going to be a turning point,’’ Sinclair
said. “I think with child welfare, we are there.
I think we actually have a minister and we have senior officials in place
within her department who are prepared to try and make some change.’’

At the Assembly of First Nations’ special chiefs meeting in December,
Philpott announced that the upcoming federal budget will include more money
for First Nations child welfare services on reserves but she stopped short of
saying how much. She reiterated that promise Tuesday as she outlined the goals
of her new department and said fixing the child welfare system is her number
one priority.

She said the Liberal government is keen to fix the “funding gap’’ in the
resources available to Indigenous children as compared to non-Indigenous kids
and conceded the Liberals have been called out repeatedly for not doing
enough.

But it will take far more than additional funds to address systemic problems,
Philpott insisted, arguing that reform must also focus on prevention, keeping
children with their families and communities and returning children currently
in care.

She said the two-day emergency meeting, which starts Thursday, is not intended
to assign blame. Rather, it’s aim is to look for ideas on what can make the
system work better and what kind of funding is needed to implement those
ideas.

Philpott also said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked her to work as fast
as possible to change outcomes for Indigenous people in Canada.

For their part, the AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring
Society want the federal government to earmark more money for the problem and
have pointed to a unanimous motion passed in the Commons in fall 2016 that
called for an immediate $155-million cash infusion.

NDP Indigenous Affairs critic Charlie Angus estimates the immediate shortfall
in funding is at least $300 million a year.

– with files from Mia Rabson

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