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Chief urges child-welfare ‘partnership’ between governments, First Nations

Grand Chief Ed John says current system for indigenous children receiving government care is skewed, and First Nations must be part of overhaul

Bernardo De Niz/The Globe and Mail

Any changes to the way indigenous children receive government care must be part of a co-operative effort between the federal and provincial governments and First Nations, says the author of a report released in B.C. this week that called for an overhaul of the current system.

Grand Chief Ed John said it would be a mistake to read his report as simply a demand to give more money and control of child welfare to First Nations.

"Read the report, it doesn't say that – that would be a cynical take on the report itself, which talks about a constructive engagement between all the parties," Mr. John said on Tuesday.

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"It's a partnership and a collaborative arrangement that needs to be considered," he added.

In his report Monday, Mr. John concluded the current system is skewed toward removing children from their families and doesn't provide enough help to families and communities.

The report contained 85 recommendations, including that the provincial court appoint judges whose work would "focus exclusively on indigenous children, families and communities" and the equivalent of at least 92 full-time social workers.

"Everybody has a part in this transformation that has to happen in a structured, methodical way. Because you don't want to create a system that you just change overnight and have chaos – it doesn't work for the families who need support or the children who need care and are being removed from their communities," he added.

Mr. John said he spoke to federal representatives Tuesday after the release of his report and expects to be in Ottawa some time in the next few weeks to meet with Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

The province named Mr. John a special adviser on indigenous children in care in September, 2015. The government had come under fire after the deaths of several children in care and sharply critical reports by outgoing Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

She criticized the government for its approach to indigenous child welfare in several reports, including Paige's Story, a 2015 report that said "professional indifference" put Paige – who died of a drug overdose at the age of 19, in 2013 – in harm's way.

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Ms. Turpel-Lafond also criticized the government for spending millions on discussions related to indigenous children without making an appreciable difference in their lives.

Mr. John hopes his report will help shift a system in which more than 60 per cent of children in care are aboriginal. The province has already agreed to fulfill the recommendations in its jurisdiction.

Many of the recommendations in Mr. John's report relate to funding, including federal and provincial agreements that provide money for foster care, for example, but not for family counselling.

"Everything stops at 'child' – there is no support in the community for the parents who are in dire need," Mr. John said.

"On the other side, there's support for the foster parents – training, accreditation, all of that. Where the child is coming from – generally poor, and those children are being removed, and there's no support, no parenting programs."

Provincial and federal funding arrangements also mean that workers for delegated aboriginal agencies – First Nations agencies delegated by the province to provide child services – are typically paid less than workers employed by the province, Mr. John said.

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As a result, workers sometimes move from delegated agencies to the ministry for better pay and benefits.

The province has repeatedly flagged staff turnover as a concern in its audits of delegated agencies, but "there is an inherent bias against the delegated agencies built right into the funding and delegation framework," Mr. John said.

In his report, Mr. John referred repeatedly to a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision, released in January of 2016, that found the federal government discriminated against First Nations children by providing less money for welfare on reserves than is available to children in the rest of Canada.

Indigenous children are 15 times more likely to wind up in government care than non-indigenous children, according to figures from the province.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More


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