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This article was published 27/10/2016 (300 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal government is considering a policy that prevents poverty from being used as a reason to take children from their parents.
The move could trigger a major turnaround in the number of First Nations children in foster care in Manitoba.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett listed the measure as one reform the government is weighing as it overhauls indigenous child-welfare programs.
Thursday she announced the appointment of a special representative to engage with provincial and territorial governments, indigenous leaders and First Nations child-welfare agencies to make reforms stemming from a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision this year.
"There are more children in care now than at the height of residential schools," Bennett told reporters outside the House of Commons. "That has to stop. It cannot continue the way it is. That’s what the tribunal has said. We need exhaustive reform, and we’re going to do it."
The tribunal ruled in January the federal government is discriminating against indigenous kids living on reserves by underfunding on-reserve child welfare compared with the funding provincial governments provide to off-reserve kids.
Indigenous leaders have said for years the rate of First Nations children in care is directly related to the fact on-reserve child-welfare agencies do not have the funding to work with families in a way that prevents the children from being apprehended. The only time those agencies get the same amount of funding as off-reserve programs is when a child is in foster care. That’s because Ottawa pays the province to provide foster care — and pays it at provincial rates.
In Manitoba, more than 90 per cent of the 10,000 children in care are First Nations, Inuit or Métis, even though those children account for 26 per cent of the children in the province.
The NDP introduced a motion Wednesday that calls on Ottawa to invest $155 million in child welfare to close the funding gap, up from $71 million pledged in the spring budget.
The Liberals will not support the motion as is because of the dollar figure, with Bennett noting the tribunal order didn’t mention a specific figure. She said the government investment last April was to lessen the gap by bringing all provinces and territories into the enhanced prevention model of care that had only been implemented in some provinces by the former government.
Future investments will be done as the system undergoes a major overhaul that will be led by Ottawa but informed by the people working in the system, she said.
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which was behind the human rights complaint, dismissed Bennett’s explanation and noted the tribunal has said twice — including after the budget — the government was not following its ruling.
She said there are processes for the kind of research and consultation the government announced Thursday, and it’s time to start listening to them.
"Announcements and talking do not change things," said Blackstock.
She said 17 U.S. states have mandated poverty can’t be used as a reason to remove children from their homes — but in Canada, Ottawa can’t do that because the provinces have jurisdiction for child-welfare services.
Bennett said she is looking at the idea because it is the kind of best practice reform that could have a real impact. She said in North and South Dakota poverty "can’t be equated with neglect."
"You actually have to deal with the poverty in the family instead of taking the children away."
Cora Morgan, child advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said eliminating poverty as an excuse to apprehend children would be a good step in Manitoba, where three-quarters of kids on reserves live below the poverty line.
Morgan said a single mother on social assistance can have her kids taken away because she can’t afford to feed them. Foster parents get three times as much money than the mom receives through social assistance.
Morgan said if social assistance rates for kids were on par with foster care rates, poverty would go down.
"It’s not spending more money, it’s spending money differently," she said.
A Manitoba Centre for Health Policy report found one in every five First Nations child spends some time in care before they turn 15.