Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
I rise to speak to Bill , which, if passed, would be a significant step forward in the process of reconciliation and in the renewal of the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.
Bill sets out the legislative framework and the principles needed to guide work among first nations, Inuit and Métis nations, provincial and territorial partners, and the Government of Canada to achieve truly meaningful reform in child and family services.
The bill before us follows wide-ranging and intensive engagement with indigenous partners, provincial and territorial representatives, youth, in particular youth who have lived experience in the child and family welfare system, and experts and advocates.
In January 2018, our government held an emergency national meeting on indigenous child and family services to collaborate on finding solutions to keep families together. In the report on the emergency meeting, the overarching theme that emerged was summarized as follows: “It is clear that the time is now to work towards transferring jurisdictional control from the federal government to First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis Nation through legislation”.
The minutes go on to say:
Legislative reforms are needed that respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples to lead the systems, developing standards and practices that reflect Indigenous laws and cultural practices, where the First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation have the right to look after their children and children and youth have rights to be raised in language and culture.
Legislative reforms are needed that respect and promote the rights of Indigenous peoples to lead the systems, developing standards and practices that reflect Indigenous laws and cultural practices.
At the end of the emergency meeting, the Government of Canada made six commitments to address the overrepresentation of indigenous children and youth in care in Canada.
First, it will continue to fully implement the orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, including Jordan's principle, and reform first nations child and family services, including by moving to a flexible funding model.
Second, it will work with partners to shift the focus of programming to culturally appropriate prevention, early intervention and family reunification.
Third, it will also work with our partners to support communities in drawing down jurisdiction in child and family services, including exploring co-developed federal legislation.
Fourth, it will participate in and accelerate the work at tripartite and technical tables that are in place across the country in supporting reform.
Fifth, it will support Inuit and Métis leadership in their work to advance meaningful, culturally appropriate reform of child and family services.
Sixth, it will create a data strategy with the provinces, territories and indigenous partners to increase interjurisdictional data collection, sharing and reporting to better understand the rates and reasons for apprehension.
Similar calls for legislation have come from call to action 4 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the National Advisory Committee on First Nations Child and Family Services and were reflected in the Assembly of First Nations' resolutions of May and December 2018, to name a few.
Throughout the summer and fall of that year, this government actively engaged with national, regional and community organizations and with individuals, nearly 2,000 across 65 meetings, to co-develop a legislative approach that has brought us to this point.
As a result of this intensive engagement process, on November 30, 2018, the former minister of Indigenous Services stood together with national indigenous leaders to announce that the Government of Canada would introduce co-developed federal legislation on indigenous child and family services.
I am heartened to share the words of Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who called these engagements “a model for implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Call-to-Actions in a meaningful and direct way.”
This is engagement that will continue as the legislation is implemented and afterward through the exploration of a national transition governance structure, with a distinctions-based underpinning, that would have representation from indigenous partners, provinces and territories.
The group could, for example, identify tools and processes to help increase the capacity of communities as they make progress toward assuming responsibility for child and family services. Such a committee could also assess gaps and recommend mechanisms, as needed, to assist with implementation, in the spirit of partnership and in the spirit of co-operation. In addition, Bill would provide a review of the legislation every five years, in collaboration with Métis, Inuit and first nation partners.
The bill is entirely consistent with our government's commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action and our commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The bill has two objectives. First is to affirm the inherent right of indigenous peoples to self-determination in relation to child and family services. The bill is formed on that foundation and would provide flexible pathways for indigenous groups across Canada to determine a way forward that would best meet the needs of their children, families and communities. Second, the bill would set out guiding principles that would guide the provision of child and family services to indigenous children in nearly every region and every jurisdiction throughout this great country.
These principles are national in scope. They are a base standard to ensure that all services for first nation, Inuit and Métis children are provided in a manner that takes into account the individual child's needs, including the need to be raised with a strong connection to the child's family, culture, language and community.
These principles are the following: the best interests of the child, cultural continuity and substantive equality. Setting these standards is in line with TRC call to action 4, which calls for the establishment of national standards, and with what we heard from partners and community members during the extensive engagement process across Canada. To be clear, these are minimum base standards that can be built upon and adapted by communities to meet their unique cultures as well as their unique traditions.
Participants also agreed that the proposed legislation should emphasize the importance of keeping indigenous families together through the implementation of prevention services and early intervention, measures that promote family preservation and reunification.
The legislation would propose an order of preference for placement: first, the family; then the extended family, other members of the community and other indigenous families; then a non-indigenous adult. The placement order is intended to ensure that children remain connected to their culture and their community and that they preserve their attachment and emotional ties to the family.
The bill would establish the importance of preventive care over apprehension. This legislation would give priority to child and family services that promote preventive care, including prenatal services, over the provision of services that promote the removal of a child at the time of birth.
Focusing on preventive care would help promote bonding between mothers and newborns and family unification and attachment and would prevent the removal of newborns. These principles, child-centred and family-centred, were referenced repeatedly throughout the engagement sessions, as was the critical importance of prevention programs.
It is clear that services provided to indigenous children and families should respect and respond in a way that is tailored to their needs and unique cultural experiences. Considerable emphasis was placed on the importance of culture and maintaining the health and well-being of children and families, including through community support networks and the involvement of elders.
It was also clear from the engagement process that federal legislation must respect the inherent right of first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples to self-determination.
This legislation starts at the point of affirming the inherent right of indigenous peoples to oversee child and family services and sets out flexible pathways for indigenous groups to create their own laws that best meet the needs of their children and their communities. Indeed, if an indigenous group chose to establish its own laws through this mechanism, the legislation makes it clear that in the case of a conflict between indigenous law and a provincial or a federal law, the indigenous law would prevail. For added clarity, the bill would not prevail over any existing treaties, self-government agreements or other agreements that already address indigenous child and family services, though communities could choose to adopt it in these situations.
Partners emphasized that the concept of one-size-fits-all is entirely inappropriate in this situation. Any federal legislation on child and family services must recognize that the needs, desires and priorities of indigenous communities in child and family services vary from one community to another and from one province to another and can evolve and change over time. As a result, there was broad consensus that federal, provincial and territorial mechanisms to support indigenous child and family services should have the flexibility needed to address a range of circumstances and variables.
Importantly, the bill also states that an indigenous child would not be apprehended on the basis of socio-economic conditions alone. This is something we heard loud and clear from partners during the consultation process. Indeed, the principle of substantive equality, the third of the guiding principles, is critical to ensuring that the focus of all providers remains on achieving equitable outcomes and equal opportunities for indigenous children and their families.
Substantive equality is the underpinning of other important initiatives, such as Jordan's principle, which ensures that first nations children across Canada can access the services, products and supports they need when they need them. Since 2016, our government has committed $680 million to support requests through Jordan's principle, which has helped provide first nations youth with a wide range of services to meet their health, social and educational needs.
The positive impact is undeniable. As of January 31 of this year, more than 214,000 requests for services and supports have been approved for first nations children under Jordan's principle. Our government is committed to ensuring that this important work continues. I had the pleasure of being with the last week in Winnipeg, with several other MPs, where he announced $1.2 billion for Jordan's principle going forward.
We are all aware that indigenous peoples have been treated atrociously. We are all familiar with the horror of residential schools and the sixties scoop.
Even so, first nations, Inuit and Métis children are still being taken away from their families, their communities, their language and their culture at an alarming and unjustifiable rate. More than half of the foster children in Canada are indigenous. There are many factors involved, of course, but there is no doubt that the system is failing indigenous children, indigenous families and indigenous communities.
We are all aware of the appalling treatment of indigenous peoples, exemplified by the horror of residential schools and by the tragedy of the sixties scoop. Over the course of the last three years, significant investments have been made to begin addressing these issues. Our government has nearly doubled the annual funding for indigenous child and family services since we took office, bringing it to more than $1.1 billion annually.
Through budget 2016, we provided $635 million over five years as a first step in addressing funding gaps in first nations child and family services. These funds have been used to support agency service providers, including enhanced funding for smaller agencies. It has supported the rollout of prevention-focused funding models across the country and more front-line service providers.
These funds are already at work. For example, last August, we announced that the Huu-ay-aht First Nation in British Columbia would receive $4.2 million, close to $850,000 a year for five years, to support new child and family services initiatives. Some 20% of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation children were in a form of government care, a situation that led the community leadership to declare a public health emergency and undertake a major study to identify solutions. With funding from Canada and other partners, the Huu-ay-aht First Nation is now implementing the 30 recommendations of this study, entitled “Safe, Healthy and Connected, Bringing Huu-ay-aht Children Home”.
Existing pregnancy support and parenting education programs are being expanded. Family and protection support workers are being hired. New opportunities for youth engagement and cultural awareness are being developed. In February 2018, we also changed policies to fund the actual costs of indigenous-led CFS agencies, meaning that they can focus on prevention and services to better support families and reduce the number of children in care.
In budget 2018, the government committed a further $1.4 billion in new funding over six years to address the funding pressures facing first nations CFS agencies. This includes funding to increase prevention resources for communities so that children are safe and families can stay together. As part of the ongoing efforts toward program reform, a total of $105 million of funding in the current year has been allocated to the community well-being and jurisdiction initiative. This new funding stream focuses on supporting first nations communities to undertake prevention activities to help families at risk stay together in communities whenever possible and, at the same time, allow communities to exercise their rightful jurisdiction over child and family services.
Funding and innovation can only go so far when dealing with a broken and failing system. It is failing generations of indigenous children and it must be reformed. The existing indigenous child and family services system has led to what has rightly been described as a humanitarian crisis. This bill represents a critical step in addressing that crisis, and I urge all members to join me in supporting it.
Mr. Speaker, I wish to inform the House that I will be splitting my time with my colleague from , in Alberta. I look forward to hearing his remarks. His constituents include first nations representatives, as do mine, in fact. I will come back to that near the end of my speech.
I am pleased to speak at this stage of the bill.
This piece of legislation is quite important. As I said a few minutes ago, the meaning or spirit behind it is good. Everyone here supports the fact that we want the best for Canada and Canadians. We want the best for our first nations people, especially for first nations youth. Yes, there are some issues. Unfortunately, too many first nations young people experience family problems.
It is sad to see that, unfortunately, nearly 50% of first nations children from many communities do not live with their parents. They have been placed in foster families to protect them or “for their own good”, as my mother used to say to me when I was in trouble. She would tell me that what she was doing was for my own good. I did not necessarily agree, but of course, in the end, my mother always knew best.
We understand that this is a troubling reality and that we need to ensure that first nations youth are treated properly. We also recognize that, in order to help children, whoever they may be or whatever nation or group they may be from, it is better to give them an environment they can relate to. That will make it much easier for them to get back on track and reach their full potential.
The problem is that children who are placed in foster families do not always get to stay in their own community, and that creates serious problems with healing.
The target is important, but we are very concerned with the fact that this issue is very touchy. Everybody would support the spirit of it, but the technical problems that could arise from that could hurt the spirit itself.
That is why we are so concerned. As the parliamentary secretary said earlier, we know that child welfare falls under provincial jurisdiction. We also know that first nations fall under federal jurisdiction. Naturally, this particular combination may lead to conflicts. There are provincial laws that may apply, but there also federal laws that pertain to first nations children.
We are not here to create problems. We are here to solve them. The bill is at second reading stage. The next step will, of course, be committee. We, on this side of the House, will do our part to ensure that no technical problems hurt the spirit of this bill, and I am sure all other members will do the same.
Since this pertains to children, jurisdictions and the fact that, unfortunately, jurisdictions sometimes collide, I feel compelled to mention the unspeakable tragedy that has shaken Quebec for the past two days. A seven-year-old girl suffered unimaginable abuse her whole life. This situation has gripped Quebec. Yesterday we were very pleased to see members of the National Assembly and people throughout Quebec come together to try to prevent such a tragedy from every happening again. My thoughts are with the loved ones of this poor victim.
We cannot look at this bill without being reminded of the fact that indigenous children are suffering through serious social problems that originate with the Canadian government and the residential school tragedy of nearly 100 years. For nearly 100 years, some 150 indigenous children were ripped from their families and placed without their consent in residential schools that had two primary objectives: to stamp out their indigenous knowledge and traditions and assimilate them into the new world, the world we are currently living in.
The scars from this tragedy are unfortunately still present today. This is why, in an extraordinary moment on June 11, 2008, right here in the House of Commons, the Right Hon. Stephen Harper, the former prime minister of Canada, issued an official apology to the first nations on behalf of all Canadians for this tragedy. It was a magical moment, but it was, unfortunately, necessary because we had put far too many indigenous peoples through this.
I want to read two excerpts from the Government of Canada's apology to the first nations. Prime Minister Harper said:
The legacy of Indian Residential Schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today. It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered. It is a testament to their resilience as individuals and to the strength of their cultures. Regrettably, many former students are not with us today and died never having received a full apology from the Government of Canada.
Today we are studying this bill because, as Prime Minister Harper expressed so well at the time, a message that was echoed by the country, parents raising their children today are suffering from the horrors they and their ancestors have been forced to endure over the past 100 years. I will share another quote from Prime Minister Harper:
We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions.... We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.
This is why we are studying a bill today to help the victims of a government approach that we strongly oppose today. We will keep a positive attitude in our study of this bill, while remaining serious, to ensure that no jurisdictional issues will affect or slow the momentum of this bill.
Earlier, I had the pleasure of saying that it will soon be four years since I was elected to the House of Commons, and it will soon be 11 years that I have served in politics at the provincial and federal level. I was the MLA for the indigenous community in Wendake, which I now represent federally. I am very proud to have represented them in the National Assembly and to be their MP here in the House of Commons. These people have lived in the Nionwentsïo for millennia, but over 320 years ago they settled permanently in Loretteville, not far from where I was born and raised.
This community is not very big and has a population of about 2,000. However it is extraordinarily positive and successful on an economic, social, historical and personal level. These people live peacefully with everyone. They are a model and an inspiration for all first nations on how people can get along. It is with great honour and pride that I represent them in the House; I have them in mind as we debate this piece of legislation.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to discuss Bill , an act respecting first nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.
As part of that, I need to refer to an interesting production that I was able to attend a few weeks ago, the New Blood dance show. New Blood is a story of reconciliation, and it was a phenomenal presentation. This widely acclaimed production blends Blackfoot music and contemporary music by Peter Gabriel to create an amazing piece of theatre celebrating Blackfoot history and traditions.
For all those who might be interested in seeing it, it is a high school group that is connected closely with Siksika. There are a lot of students in it. It was first performed in 2014, and it is performed annually, with new students as participants. It has been viewed in many places in southern Alberta and in some in British Columbia. It is based on a chief's life, going through reconciliation and becoming a chief of his people, and the ultimate goal of the teacher who developed this production was to hopefully bring it to Ottawa so that more people could see it.
I think it is fantastic, and hopefully Heritage Canada understands how important this type of production is, as it is done by indigenous youth in our country.
The legislation that we have in front of us comes on the heels of Bill , which was sent back to the House from the heritage committee.
I was fundamentally supportive of Bill 's objectives. Its objectives were important to constituents in my riding.
Siksika Nation, which is located in Bow River, has already taken steps to offer an immersion program in the Blackfoot language for the first time this September. The program will be offered to kindergarten and grade 1 students to start. This is an incredible step in ensuring their language and culture are strengthened through future generations. The students need to be there. I hope this program is a great success.
However, even though I fundamentally supported Bill , the way the government rushed through the legislation was unacceptable. As with Bill , the government introduced Bill C-91 late in its mandate. This has left the government scrambling to force the legislation's passage. In fact, as we were in committee, about 15 minutes before we were scheduled to meet for clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-91, we received over 20 new Liberal amendments to that piece of legislation.
Previously, when we were discussing the bill and hearing witnesses, I had pointed out some of the constitutional challenges that I felt Bill would have. Then we had constitutional lawyers appear before the committee as witnesses, and they pointed out the same problems. They believed that this legislation would not stand in court the way it was written.
Some amendments were made and maybe that will fix the legislation, but that is the problem with both Bill and Bill . They were written too hurriedly and too late. Constitutional lawyers did not have an opportunity to deal with the amendments to make this legislation better or more correct so that it does not end up in litigation for years in court.
This pattern should not be repeated with Bill , but I understand that the committee is conducting a pre-study and going through the same process. It was a piece of legislation that was rushed too quickly.
I understand that Bill seeks to affirm the rights of first nations, Inuit and Métis to exercise jurisdiction over child and family services by establishing national principles, such as best interests of the child, cultural continuity, and substantive equality to guide the interpretation and administration of the bill.
These principles are intended to guide indigenous communities on the delivery of child and family services. If the legislation meets its objectives, it would keep extended families together and in their communities, which is a critical part of the goals, but I do not know if the legislation is going to achieve that. I do not think anyone would be opposed to that goal.
Consistent with the 2008 residential school apology delivered by Prime Minister Harper, Conservatives believe steps must be taken to reduce the number of indigenous children in care. Amends need to be made for residential schools and the sixties scoop.
My mother, for example, was one of the first teachers after the transition out of residential schools to teach in what it was called a day head start program for four- and five-year-olds for indigenous children on the Blood reserve. It was the first transition for students of that age to be at home and not in a residential school.
Ultimately, this legislation can reduce the number of indigenous children in care. It is well designed, but what did we see on Bill ? On Bill C-91 we heard from many witnesses that they had not been consulted or that their advice was unheeded. First of all, we heard on Bill C-91 that there had been extensive consultation. Then witnesses talked about six months. Then it got down to the fact that it was actually only for three months that there was an attempt at consultations, and then we heard that it was only weeks, so it is a challenge for us to know what really happened when we hear that extensive consultations have been done.
Given that Bill aims to give indigenous communities more jurisdiction over their foster care program, I would hope that the government will actually listen to the witnesses that are coming to committee. Otherwise, this is just one more example of colonialism by the government, which the government claims it is trying to avoid.
On Bill there were a lot of witnesses with a variety of opinions that did not match the legislation. They needed more consultation. As well, when I was at committee, we once again had a tremendous variety of witnesses with different opinions on National Indigenous Peoples Day, and again it was the government making the decision with its legislation.
I understand that the first nations, Inuit and Métis continue to be overrepresented in Canada's foster care system, According to the 2016 census data from Stats Canada, there are almost 15,000 foster children in private homes under the age of 15 who are indigenous, which is 52% of foster children in Canada. Obviously, the current system is not working well for indigenous youth.
I respect the fact that the government is taking measures it believes will address the situation, even though the government waited until the very last minute to introduce this legislation. Bill emphasizes a need to focus on prevention, rather than on apprehension. When apprehension has been deemed in a child's best interest, the legislation provides an order of preference for the placement of an indigenous child with a family member or a member of their community and stresses that siblings should be kept together when it is in their best interests. That seems like a good approach, but will it work?
While I have only recently reviewed the legislation, I look forward to learning more about the government's intentions to execute this plan. That is where we will find out if it works. Just as there were flaws in Bill , I trust that the committee is receiving valuable testimony from witnesses on how to fix the potential flaws in the bill and how to make it better.
I do have a particular concern about coordination of this legislation with the provinces and territories. I understand that on the day the bill was tabled, Saskatchewan's Minister of Social Services, Paul Merriman, told APTN that the federal government chose not to collaborate with the provinces and territories to develop this legislation. In the development of Bill , what we heard from people from the grassroots in the education systems in indigenous communities was that there was no consultation with them, and again the provinces are saying that there was no consultation with them. This is a problem.
Jurisdiction over this file may get complicated. I hope this issue will be addressed at committee. Bill will be a better piece of legislation if the committee actually addresses some of the problems, just like in Bill . The last thing we want to do is spend this time on legislation and then have it end up in the courts under appeal.