OTTAWA — It’s one of the rare examples of federal-provincial agreement between the Liberals and the Manitoba government.
And while Ottawa and Manitoba are on the same page when it comes to dealing with the over-representation of Indigenous families in the child-welfare system, a potential agreement might fall apart because of squabbling among other provinces.
The Free Press has obtained a draft of the document provincial ministers deliberated but didn’t sign Jan. 26, at a landmark meeting aimed at reforming Child and Family Services.
Almost a week later, the Free Press has learned federal Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott is considering inking separate agreements alongside regional groupings, to preserve a widespread consensus around solving the problem.
Those groupings could be clusters of provinces or even "Treaty territories" (for example, Treaty 2 spans First Nations in central Manitoba and southeast Saskatchewan).
"We remain committed to working with all regions and jurisdictions on reform, and this could include bi- or trilateral agreements," Philpott’s spokesman, Andrew MacKendrick, wrote Thursday.
Ottawa presented a draft document, known as a communiqué, on Jan. 25, touching on general principles that sources say were widely shared by the provinces.
But some ministers argued through the evening meeting over small wording tweaks, while some worried about phrasing that would undermine provincial autonomy.
The next morning, the government shelved the idea of getting the "commitment to action" signed during the two-day meeting.
Two sources said the phrasing of both "our respective Indigenous partners" and "their respective Indigenous partners" had some provincial ministers concerned they’d be accused of taking possession over Aboriginal sovereignty.
Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding said he’s committed to getting something in writing with Ottawa, but has stressed since the summit he’d need First Nations and Métis leaders to agree with the wording of the document.
"We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing child welfare," Fielding wrote Thursday. He added even without the joint statement, "our shared goals remain the same: provide better outcomes for Indigenous children."
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization said Fielding has indeed sought approval on the principles, and SCO is generally supportive of them but needs time to make sure local chiefs endorse them.
"It has to match up with what we’re doing; anything else would be a mistake," said Daniels,
There are various iterations of the draft communiqué; provincial officials and Indigenous leaders made mark-ups to physical and digital copies.
The version obtained by the Free Press says the rising rate of Indigenous children in care "has reached crisis proportions and is causing significant harmful and enduring impacts on children, families, communities, and nations."
It is largely vague wording around encouraging Indigenous youth to "maintain their cultural language identities, connections to their communities, kinship ties and attachments to their families" and supporting plans "that improve outcomes" for them.
The leaked draft does echo widespread calls for autonomy over CFS care, something every major Métis and First Nations political body in Manitoba had endorsed. The draft notes "a long-term goal of enhancing community involvement and control over child and family services."
Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand said the wording isn’t forceful enough. He said Manitoba’s semi-devolved model allows Métis and First Nations to administer their own CFS agencies, but they still have to follow laws and funding rules set by the province.
"Even though I have a mandated agency, I’m still many times at the mercy of the province," said Chartrand, arguing it ties the hands of agencies who want to do more preventive work.
Grand Chief Sheila North of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said the communiqué implies First Nations haven’t built up their own governance and family laws. "It's assuming that all Indigenous governments haven’t done the work already to assume the jurisdiction again. And in some regions, they are ready, like in our region."
Chartrand, both grand chiefs and both ministers stressed they are generally on the same page. But Daniels wondered why Ottawa brought the draft to the provinces and not Indigenous leaders.
"If they were more proactive, in terms of getting this communiqué out to the leadership and the province together, then you would have had Manitoba support," he said.
Chartrand had similar thoughts.
"Everybody seemed to be on the same page; everybody talked in a positive light, but somehow in the backrooms — where we’re not allowed to be — is I guess sometimes where the real truth is," he said. "That, I think, is the missing link: why aren’t we at those tables?"
The communiqué also suggests the provinces generally do not support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for federal legislation to set national standards on Indigenous children in care.
The draft cites the TRC’s four other calls-to-action related to CFS, including adequate training and funding, central data collection and supporting Jordan’s Principle, which holds children should be provided care before settling federal-provincial jurisdictional funding disputes.
Daniels said it would be difficult to do so because those areas include both reserves and public land, two areas that, outside Manitoba, are generally administered by separate CFS agencies.
Philpott is also standing by her own six promises made independent of provincial plans, which include improving data collection, implementing Jordan’s Principle and culturally appropriate care.