A year after national inquiry, First Nations still looking for action on child welfare crisis

One year ago, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found Canada guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide. Federal and provincial laws, policies and practices governing Indigenous child welfare in Canada have created a humanitarian crisis.

But despite the concerns raised by both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, Canada has yet to develop a national action plan to end the genocide. Government officials have barely blinked since this release of the final report.

A “historic” Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to talk about the implementation of legislation on Indigenous child welfare was announced this week by Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde. The document is referred to as a protocol on C-92, An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit And Metis Children, Youth And Families, but it’s not legally binding. One has to wonder whether there’s any intention at all of addressing this critical part of genocide against Indigenous children and families.

Indigenous children paying the biggest price

Canada’s genocide against Indigenous peoples requires a massive response. But even renewed demands for action have been met with excuses related to the pandemic – another issue that poses a greater risk to Indigenous peoples because of Canada’s historic neglect of First Nations.

Various United Nations officials have called on countries to ensure that the pandemic is not used to ignore issues facing Indigenous peoples, yet this is precisely what’s happening and it’s First Nations children that are paying the biggest price.

Indigenous children make up 7 per cent of the youth population in Canada but represent approximately 50 per cent of those in foster care. In provinces like Manitoba, those numbers jump to an astounding 90 per cent.

Similarly, half of all youth in juvenile corrections in Canada are Indigenous.

In provinces like Saskatchewan, their numbers can be as high as 92 per cent for Indigenous boys and 98 per cent for Indigenous girls.

Former Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott called the situation a “humanitarian crisis.” Yet there has been no corresponding response to begin to remedy the situation.

This is especially troubling since the majority of First Nations children behind bars are being incarcerated for reasons associated with poverty, not violent crime. We also know that two-thirds of Indigenous peoples in prisons have at one time or another been affected by the child welfare system.

The National Inquiry already determined that Canada has demonstrated “ample evidence of a genocidal policy [and] a manifest pattern of similar conduct which reflects an intention to destroy Indigenous peoples” physically, biologically and as social units. This humanitarian crisis of First Nations children in foster care is a core part of the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. No Memorandum of Understanding is going to solve that.

MOU’s between Canada and the AFN are neither historic nor unique. They’ve been primarily used in the past as public relations documents meant to make it look like the federal government is taking concrete action to address the many injustices facing First Nations. They contain lots of flowery language about making important changes.

But they have little force in law. Ultimately, they are part of the instruments used to justify more roundtables to engage in dialogue.

The AFN has received millions in funding related to various MOUs over the years. The agreements do little more than entrench the status quo when it comes to politics between Canada and First Nations. They rarely end in concrete commitments – other than committing to meet and talk about possible processes and developing a greater understanding between one another.

In 2016, the AFN signed an MOU with Indigenous Affairs that committed to meeting to developing processes to review the fiscal relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples. In the same year, the AFN signed an MOU with the RCMP to meet twice a year and ensure that the AFN was the primary contact on policing issues.

It’s very clear given recent events that the AFN’s MOU with the RCMP did little more than prop up the RCMP, while Indigenous peoples continue to suffer racialized violence at the hands of the RCMP.

Canada and the AFN signed another MOU in 2017 intended to establish a “process” to deal with policing and socio-economic conditions in First Nations. Yet, the situation on both fronts has only become worse.

Now we have Canada-AFN MOU on child welfare that talks about the critical funding that Canada promised would be attached to C-92, but was excluded.

This MOU includes promises of a joint working group, subcommittees on various issues and another fiscal table all designed for discussions to “explore processes” on issues related to the implementation of child welfare legislation.

Funding is not needed for more AFN engagement on this legislation. Federal funding is needed to fully comply with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decisions that have ordered Canada to stop discriminating against First Nations children and to compensate them for years of discrimination.

Federal funding is also needed to support the actual First Nations governments with their governing jurisdictions and mandates over child and family matters for their citizens, as well as for education, training, supports and infrastructure to both improve current systems and create new ones.

The AFN does not engage in the management of child welfare nor is it a government with any jurisdiction to make any operative decisions on child welfare governance in First Nations.

While the MOU purports not to limit the autonomy of First Nations, past MOUs between Canada and the AFN seem to do just that.

Instead of working with First Nations governments to respect their rights and provide the funding that is owed for child welfare, Canada continues to dance around the edges.

We need international intervention from OAS and the UN to oversee an Indigenous-led national action plan to urgently transition Canada out of genocide and end the ongoing theft of our children. You can bet MOUs won’t be part of the plan.

Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen member of Eel River Bar First Nation and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. 


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