In front of a table full of tiny moccasins for newborns taken away from their moms at birth, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett promised to work with First Nations people in Manitoba toward "totally transforming" child welfare in the province.

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In front of a table full of tiny moccasins for newborns taken away from their moms at birth, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett promised to work with First Nations people in Manitoba toward "totally transforming" child welfare in the province.

"Today, together, we are committing to totally transforming the child welfare and child and family services program," Bennett said at a press conference Monday at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs headquarters in Winnipeg.

"The system is broken" and, Bennett said, the solutions for fixing it can be found only in the indigenous community. The federal minister didn't bring any new financial help, as some had hoped, but reaffirmed $550,000 in federal money for community engagement sessions in First Nations communities in Manitoba to find their own solutions. Those meetings began in late fall and are expected to run until the summer.

"I can tell you the Government of Canada sure appreciates the efforts of First Nations in guiding the necessary reforms," said Bennett, who was flanked by elders, officials with the AMC and First Nations Family Advocacy Office. No one from the provincial government — responsible for child welfare legislation in Manitoba — was in attendance.

"We know that our province has the highest child-apprehension rates in the western world and astronomical rates of newborn baby apprehensions," said Swan Lake First Nation Chief Francine Meeches, who chairs the AMC's women's committee.

"It's no wonder when our current provincial funding model is designed to incentivize child apprehension," she said. "Our provincial child welfare legislation has the lowest threshold for child apprehension in all of North America." The province spends much more on taking kids into care than it spends on helping families to prevent children from ending up in care, she said. Almost 90 per cent of the more than 10,000 children in the child welfare system in Manitoba are indigenous, said Meeches.

"It's no wonder when 76 per cent of children living on reserve in Manitoba live below the poverty line," she said. Governments have studied the problem and haven't figured out how to fix it, she said. "We know urgent change is needed and answers are in our First Nation communities," said Meeches.

"One of the things difficult here in Manitoba is our legislation," said Cora Morgan, director of the First Nations Family Advocacy Office. "Other provinces are far more progressive," said Morgan. "My fear in Manitoba, right now, is if you invested more money into the system, more money would lead to more children apprehended."

Morgan's office receives an average 1,200 calls a month from families trying to get their kids out of care. Some are taken from hospital soon after they're born. "Our office has been to the hospital and, in a matter of an hour and a half, we've seen five newborn babies being taken," said Morgan. Her office at the AMC receives no government funding but is getting federal support for engaging communities in a process that she says is not just paying lip service to child welfare reform.

"What made it meaningful to us is the process," said Morgan, who described the First Nations Caring Society's Touchstones of Hope tools that they're using in the communities. In each place, residents are asked to finish the sentence "Indigenous children will be safe and living with dignity and respect when___." When they work out a common dream for their kids, they spell out what indications they'll have when that dream is realized and change has happened. Next, they look at what's happening now — kids apprehended at birth, no prevention services and all the tragedy and trauma at the community level. Then, they set short and long term goals.

"At the end of the day we have a lot of power in our communities and we have different ways to think," Morgan said. "When we go through this exercise, community people come up with ideas of things they can do right away," she said, something as simple as holding a movie night, for example.

"We don't have, right now, the resources to address more costly things that we're going to need but at least it's something in each community." Each has their Touchstones of Hope left on display. "They have a constant reminder of how they're going to move forward," said Morgan. "We also want Canada to be accountable and work with us so we can put plans in action and they can provide us with the tools that we need to get there."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.