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Families Minister says province focused on fixing failing child-welfare system

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, left, Chief Jim Bear of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, centre, and Families Minister Scott Fielding at a press conference for a special summit that the Southern Chiefs’ Organization held regarding Child and Family Services.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, left, Chief Jim Bear of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, centre, and Families Minister Scott Fielding at a press conference for a special summit that the Southern Chiefs’ Organization held regarding Child and Family Services.

The province will work with Manitoba's Indigenous leaders to fix a "broken" child-welfare system, Families Minister Scott Fielding says.

The minister's remarks came at a news conference Thursday after a two-day summit in Winnipeg hosted by the Southern Chiefs' Organization, which represents the 33 (mostly Anishinaabe and Dakota) First Nations in Manitoba.

Fielding said more meetings are planned with the province's northern chiefs -- through the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents mostly Cree and Dene communities -- and the Manitoba Metis Federation.

"I want to say that child welfare has failed Indigenous people for far too long," Fielding said while seated at a small table alongside Brokenhead Chief Jim Bear and SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels at a Polo Park-area hotel.

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The province will work with Manitoba's Indigenous leaders to fix a "broken" child-welfare system, Families Minister Scott Fielding says.

The minister's remarks came at a news conference Thursday after a two-day summit in Winnipeg hosted by the Southern Chiefs' Organization, which represents the 33 (mostly Anishinaabe and Dakota) First Nations in Manitoba.

Fielding said more meetings are planned with the province's northern chiefs — through the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents mostly Cree and Dene communities — and the Manitoba Metis Federation.

"I want to say that child welfare has failed Indigenous people for far too long," Fielding said while seated at a small table alongside Brokenhead Chief Jim Bear and SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels at a Polo Park-area hotel.

"And we really need to fix it. That's what our province is focused on and we need to align our priorities, the province, Indigenous leadership, as well as the federal government," Fielding said, calling the crisis in the system "the most serious issue we face in the province."

Of the 11,000 children under the care of child-welfare agencies in the province, 90 per cent are Indigenous; a number that has soared by 85 per cent over the last decade. Each year, the system cost taxpayers up to half-a-billion dollars to run.

While Manitoba has the highest number of children in care in Canada, similar concerns are shared by other provinces.

Later this month, federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott will welcome child and family services groups and provincial government representatives to Ottawa to chart a new path for child welfare.

What Philpott has called an "emergency meeting" will take place Jan. 25-26, and Ottawa expects between 200 and 300 guests to attend. Officials from all the provinces and territories have been invited, as have various Indigenous leaders and child-welfare experts. The goal is to agree on general principles that will shape a reform of the CFS system.

First Nations in southern Manitoba have expectations, too. One after another, chiefs and grandmothers who represent community elders as the traditional life-givers, stepped forward Thursday to emphasize reforms will only be effective if they are at the centre of the process.

"The issue of CFS will only be solved with the inclusion of our grandmothers, our leadership and our people in our communities. The plan has to come from our communities and our people. That is what we are asking for. What's starting to come together is provincial and federal participation," Daniels said.

The biggest challenge is resources, Daniels said, linking chronic federal underfunding for services on First Nations to the current child-welfare crisis.

Faced with mounting criticism and a scathing human rights tribunal ruling, the federal government conceded last fall it's time to bridge the funding gap for First Nations children under the care of child and family services. It's one of the reasons for the emergency summit this month.

"We need the funding for housing. We need the funding for our children. We've been talking about bringing our children home for a long time. We have children with disabilities, children who are high-risk, special needs, and we have to have the resources for those things," Daniels said.

At the same time, the chiefs insisted solutions have to be locally driven and tailored to fit the needs of individual communities.

"It has to be a well-planned initiative. It has to be under our authority. It has to be community-driven. We want to bring our children home, and we want to keep our children at home. That's the only way we're going to have a nation and we are working on those things. At home," Bear said.

The theme, that the province must step back and let the Indigenous community figure out how to fix the child-welfare system, has been echoing in recent months.

Michael Redhead Champagne, founder of the Winnipeg-based community organization Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, expressed the same position in December, when he was among the seven people Fielding appointed to a legislative review committee to reform child welfare.

Both the Southern Chiefs' Organization and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have made similar statements, on separate occasions. The AMC recently signed an agreement with Ottawa related to First Nations' jurisdiction over child and family services.

Fielding indicated Thursday he's heard the Indigenous message loud and clear, and he expects to carry it to Ottawa. He said he's expecting participation at all levels of the province's reforms.

In addition to Champagne, Fielding noted he also named representatives from SCO, MKO and the MMF to the review committee tasked with making recommendations on legislative amendments.

"They will give advice of a technical nature of what we need to change in the Child and Families Services Act and the Authorities Act," Fielding said. "The bigger reform piece is a decision that will be made by the provincial government, myself and the Indigenous leadership.

"This is the first step of that (process). This is the first summit that we're having. There will be others that happen with MKO and the MMF."

— with files from Dylan Robertson

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Alexandra Paul

Alexandra Paul
Reporter

Alexandra believes every story has a life of its own with a heartbeat and body and legs. She’ll probe for a pulse and check out its shape from every which way, until she feels it and sees it. So be patient with her. She can be exasperating.

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