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This article was published 18/9/2017 (698 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — First Nations child welfare agencies in Manitoba have been quietly working with Ottawa and the province to bridge discriminatory funding gaps amid loud protests over a longstanding shortfall, the Free Press has learned.
"This is an opportunity to right the wrongs and prevent harm," said Tara Petti, chief executive officer of the Southern First Nations Network of Care, who is helping to steer the process.
In January 2016, a landmark Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling found Ottawa was discriminating against First Nations children by providing on-reserve Child and Family Services agencies an estimated 30 per cent less funding than what provinces give off-reserve CFS groups.
The case has become a rallying point for First Nations advocates, whose criticism has intensified as the tribunal issued three legal notices asking Ottawa to increase funding. In the 2016 budget, the feds allocated $634 million for First Nations child welfare, but most of it kicks in after the 2019 election.
Behind the scenes, First Nations CFS groups have been tallying their needs and working with both the federal and provincial governments.
Manitoba CFS agencies fall under four monitoring authorities: general, Métis, First Nations southern and First Nations northern.
Since November 2016, both First Nations authorities have been meeting to come up with a new funding model in light of the tribunal ruling. The 17 representatives span higher-ups at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, to tribal councils, to front-line CFS groups.
This summer, INAC gave each First Nations CFS agency $25,000 to assess their needs, and help them come up with spending plans.
The Manitoba roundtable hired John Loxley, a University of Manitoba economics professor who has studied CFS funding issues, to analyze the groups’ reports.
"The situation right across the country is not very good at all, and in Manitoba, it’s poor. The number of children in care is rising, over 80 per cent are Indigenous," said Loxley. "It’s got to be turned around."
Loxley, who heard back from CFS groups in July, said Manitoba funding isn’t adjusted for inflation, salary budgets are inadequate for the cost of living on-reserve, as are the budgets for transportation for agencies that have many remote sites.
He has drafted a report, which the working group is studying, before sending it to a permanent CFS advisory council on Oct. 6 for approval. The report will be give to INAC, the province and the tribunal.
Loxley said his reports will reveal, for the first time since 2000, the size of the funding gap for Manitoba’s First Nations CFS groups. Petti said those findings should shape the next federal budget, which will be made public in March or April.
She said it’s a more effective process than emulating a unique approach in Alberta.
In July, the Alberta government said it would strong-arm Ottawa to bridge the shortfall in that province, prompting some First Nations CFS agencies to tell the Free Press that Manitoba should consider following suit.
Alberta deputy premier Sarah Hoffman told reporters her province would top up funding for children living on-reserve, which is a federal responsibility, and then "fight with the feds if we have to" about the cost.
But Loxley said this approach wouldn’t work in Manitoba because the province uses a different funding model in which First Nations CFS agencies are responsible for children both on- and off-reserve. That means roughly 60 per cent of the funding comes from the province, mirroring how many First Nations children in care live off-reserve.
He said Alberta was responding to a scathing auditor general report that found drastically worse outcomes for Indigenous children.
"There is nothing in the Alberta model that is in anyway superior to ours, and nothing to gain by applying that model," said Loxley. He instead suggests more funding for prevention and family-reunification programs.
However, CFS groups have been weary of cuts from the cash-strapped Manitoba government. Petti said while Ottawa’s being called out on its shortfall, the province must also boost spending "to avoid two-tiered funding within agencies."
A spokeswoman for the provincial Department of Families said cuts weren’t in the cards during an August meeting with all four CFS authorities, which focused on "options to effectively manage operations within their existing budgets."
Meanwhile, Petti said funding talks have gone smoothly, despite "competing visions" over whether prevention dollars should go to CFS groups to keep children from entering the system, or if that money is better suited to programs run by First Nations councils.
The Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 First Nations in the province’s north, is among those at the table. MKO Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson said consultations are a sign of progress, as was the northern authority’s return to local control this July after more than years under the supervision of a provincial administrator.
"We are constantly moving towards First Nations jurisdiction on child welfare issues," she said. "It’s a matter of getting everyone around the table."
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools published its 94 calls to action, the first five of which involve Indigenous over-representation in the child-welfare system.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said it’s important to seize the momentum around reconciliation, after 15 years of what he deemed unco-operative federal governments.
"If we were to collaborate and move forward with the government, we’ll actually bring forward a lot of tangible results," Dumas said. "The status quo is obviously not going to work."
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In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"