THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES
OTTAWA, Wednesday, May 1, 2019
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples met this day at 6:45 p.m. to study the federal government’s constitutional, treaty, political and legal responsibilities to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples; and the subject matter of Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families (consideration of a draft budget, Youth Indigenize the Senate 2019).
Senator Lillian Eva Dyck (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Good evening. I would like to welcome all honourable senators and members of the public who are watching this meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples either here in the room, on television or listening via the web.
I would like to acknowledge, for the sake of reconciliation, that we are meeting on the traditional, unceded lands of the Algonquin peoples. My name is Lillian Dyck from Saskatchewan, and I have the privilege of chairing this committee.
Tonight we are continuing our pre-study of Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.
Before we begin, I would invite my fellow senators to introduce themselves.
Senator Christmas: Dan Christmas from Nova Scotia.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: Patti LaBoucane-Benson, Treaty 6 territory, Alberta.
Senator Pate: Kim Pate, Ontario.
Senator Francis: Brian Francis, Prince Edward Island.
Senator Coyle: Mary Coyle, Nova Scotia.
Senator Patterson: Dennis Patterson, Nunavut.
Senator Griffin: Diane Griffin, Prince Edward Island.
Senator Doyle: Norman Doyle, Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Chair: Thank you, senators. Before we begin with our first panel, I would like us to take a few minutes to approve a budget for what has become an annual event called Youth Indigenize the Senate. You have copies of the budget in front of you.
This year the youth will arrive in Ottawa on June 4, where there will be a reception to allow members to welcome them and give the youth an opportunity to do some networking.
On Wednesday, June 5, the youth will appear in front of our committee to share their views on Aboriginal issues. This budget before you is to cover a few expenses related to the event and is similar to the one approved last year.
Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt this budget?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
The Chair: Thank you. The motion has been carried.
I would like to welcome to the committee this evening, from Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island, Marilyn Birch, Director of Child & Family Services; and via video conference, the Manitoba First Nations Family Advocate Office, Marcel Balfour, Senior Policy Analyst; and Kayla Frank, Policy Analyst.
Thank you for taking the time to meet with us this evening.
Marilyn Birch, Director of Child & Family Services, Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island (MCPEI): Good evening, senators, and thank you for allowing me to be here this evening. I would like to acknowledge the Algonquin Nation, whose traditional and unceded territory we are gathered upon this evening.
Currently in Prince Edward Island, the province has the mandated authority to deliver child protection services to children living on reserve as per the P.E.I. Child Protection Act.
The First Nations, through the Tribal Council, deliver prevention and protection support to First Nation children living on reserve through the Mi’kmaq Child and Family Services program.
There are two components to the Mi’kmaq Child and Family Services program. One of the components is known as the PRIDE program. The PRIDE program provides early intervention and protection support to children and families living on reserve. This program is funded by Indigenous Services Canada.
The second component of the Mi’kmaq Child and Family Services program is the role of the designated representative. This function is not funded by Indigenous Services Canada but plays a significant role in how child protection services are delivered to First Nations children.
In 2003, the provincial government added a designated representative to the provincial Child Protection Act. In 2010, further amendments were made to the Child Protection Act, providing legislative support to the joint working protocol agreed to between the P.E.I. Mi’kmaq and the Province of P.E.I. The link between the provincial child protection system and First Nations is through the designated representative. Both Lennox Island First Nation and Abegweit First Nation delegate the responsibilities of the designated representative to the director of the Mi’kmaq Child And Family Services program. I am both the director of the program and the designated representative.
The joint working protocol, the designated representative and the front-line work of the PRIDE program combined have demonstrated that, by working together, it is possible to reduce the number of children in care for the on-reserve population. While the First Nations don’t have the legislative responsibility to deliver child protection services, we still have the ability to support the delivery of child protection services in a manner that is sensitive to the community’s unique needs.
We have a very positive and collaborative working relationship with the Province of P.E.I. as well as the regional staff at Indigenous Services Canada. We have active bilateral and trilateral working groups. One of these groups is our Indigenous child well-being committee.
Our success is primarily due to the desire by good people to do good work, based on a growing understanding of the historical influences and unique needs of the two P.E.I. First Nations. The P.E.I. department of Child and Family Services has committed to the wishes of the Mi’kmaq leadership: Nothing about us without us. However, more than good faith and good intentions are required to ensure First Nations children are cared for and remain safely within their communities for generations to come.
I have been the designated representative for Lennox Island First Nation and Abegweit First Nation for the past 12 years. I have been in court. I have made submissions. I have participated in the development of plans of care for children in the care of the director of child protection. However, the designated representative does not have the same legal standing and rights as the other parties. Additionally, the P.E.I. Child Protection Act is like the rest of the existing child welfare legislation in Canada: It was written from a western perspective. And, while there have been amendments made to the act, the act is not based on First Nations customs and traditions, nor does it take into consideration the unique and special needs of First Nation children.
Many people might ask why we have not taken on the authority to deliver our own child protection services. We are a small province and have a relatively small but the growing First Nation population. The amount of infrastructure and resources we would require for our own child protection agency would be significant. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it or we won’t at some point in the future. However, if we were to take on the mandate to deliver child protection services, we would need to receive our delegation from the Province of P.E.I. and we would need to apply the existing P.E.I. Child Protection Act.
For the first time in the history of this country, Bill C-92 could provide the mechanism for First Nations to develop and apply their own laws, based on their own customs and traditions and have the full legal authority for the protection of their children. Not only that, but provinces would also have to apply Bill C-92 when delivering the child protection services to First Nation, Inuit and Metis children. However, unless the wording in clauses 3 and 13(b) is changed, Bill C-92 is really not a lot different from what we currently have in P.E.I.
We have been discussing Bill C-92 in P.E.I. One idea we have is that the Mi’kmaq will develop their own child welfare legislation and the province will apply it in their delivery of child protection services to Mi’kmaq children. If this happens, we will be able to build on a solid foundation that already exists for how child protection services are delivered to Prince Edward Island’s First Nation children.
How did we get to the point where we could even have this type of conversation and collaboration with the province? The working relationship that currently exists is due to the direction and support of the First Nation leadership and the commitment and collaboration from the province. The people involved have goodwill and good intent. However, to sustain us over the long term and for future generations, we need Bill C-92.
Others have appeared before you and pointed out many of the concerns about Bill C-92. I won’t repeat those concerns other than to note that there is a lot of work to be done and many resources will need to be required to ensure that Bill C-92 and its implementation lead to better outcomes for First Nation children. As Dr. Blackstock has indicated many times, we don’t want Canada to once again have to apologize to another generation of First Nation children.
I will leave you with one last comment: We have to find a way to get this right. Thank you.
Marcel Balfour, Senior Policy Analyst, Manitoba First Nations Family Advocate Office: Thank you. I am pleased to be presenting to you with my colleague Kayla Frank on behalf of the First Nations Family Advocate Office of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. I respectfully submit the following so you are aware of our position on Bill C-92.
You have more than once heard that children are sacred. We don’t own them, but are entrusted with them. The Creator has provided the laws to our First Nations to care for and nurture our children and families in a good way. We have our own ways of being and our own ways to care for one another. This has been interrupted by colonization, assimilation and genocide. It is time to properly and meaningfully address these impacts.
You should not support Bill C-92. Through the Canada-AMC memorandum of understanding on child welfare, Canada already committed to developing Manitoba-specific federal legislation that would enable First Nations in Manitoba to exercise their own jurisdiction. As well, Bill C-92 cannot be supported because of the fundamentally flawed process and problematic content, including that there was no meaningful consultation with Manitoba First Nations.
It’s pan-Indigenous, does not respect First Nations’ law or jurisdiction and attempts to domesticate First Nations law under federal jurisdiction. It fails at reconciliation and respect for First Nations’ rights of self-determination. Its foundation is based on the best interests of the child, which is not defined, yet defines the right of an Indigenous child. It does not respect the unique First Nation-Crown treaty relationship Manitoba First Nations have with Canada. It does not fundamentally change the status quo. It continues to make space for a role for the Province of Manitoba by legislating the province into Bill C-92. The province will be involved in policy and regulatory development, which they currently do not, while at the same time not providing for a true nation-to-nation relationship, it legislates Jordan’s Principle and there is no committed funding.
Bill C-92 does not respond to the commitment made to Manitoba chiefs by Canada in December 2017 when the AMC signed an MOU with former Minister Philpott and current Minister Bennett. The MOU work plan identified that Manitoba First Nations would be able to exercise their full jurisdiction for the care of children and families within the next five years.
It is clear that the Canadian government has ignored its MOU commitment to First Nations in Manitoba by not supporting Manitoba’s First Nation-specific federal legislation. You have the ability to change that.
The position of the Manitoba First Nations Family Advocate Office remains consistent with the AMC chiefs and assembly: to continue to pursue Canada’s commitment to develop Manitoba First Nation-specific federal legislation as proposed in the bringing our children home act. I want to briefly highlight some specific concerns about the bill.
Canada must give effect to the duty to consult with Manitoba First Nations rights holders. This includes clearly informing Manitoba First Nations how the bill is pan-Indigenous, which means that it not only includes First Nations being subject to the bill but also blends Metis and Inuit, and how that relationship still respects the unique First Nation-Crown treaty relationship Manitoba First Nations still have with Canada — that is identified in the preamble and throughout the bill — how it federally legislates First Nation law and jurisdiction, how it promotes and respects First Nations’ right to self-determination and how it reconciles the foundational, undefined best interests of the child. This includes in clauses 9 and 10.
The consultation or engagement process in Manitoba is really important, because in recent technical meetings with representatives from the First Nations Family Advocate Office and the AMC, Canada referred to its online lists of meetings with representatives from the advocate office and AMC as engagement or consultation on Bill C-92. However, when those actual meetings were clarified with those representatives, it was very clear that it was in the based on the bill but rather with respect to the MOU between the AMC and Canada. We were told by the Canadian representatives that would be removed from the online lists, and it still has not been.
The bill is problematic as well because of the paramountcy of Canadian law over First Nations law, and that must be removed. That includes clause 19.
The involvement of the province must also be removed. It is noted that the provincial legislation is not required to be harmonized with the act or with subsequent First Nations child and family well-being laws. That includes clauses 20 to 24, subclause 31(2), 32(2) and 34(2).
With the need to remove how the best interests of the child trump the rights of the Indigenous child, including in clauses 9 to 15, 22 and 23, Canada must also fundamentally provide for a true nation-to-nation relationship that includes getting the province out of its current business of putting First Nations children in care. We should be looking at promoting First Nation jurisdiction, which includes clauses 4, 7, 10, 20, 22, 28, 32 and 34. References to Jordan’s Principle should be removed. That’s when you read in the preamble at subclauses 3(e) and 11(a). There should be a commitment to funding directly to First Nations.
We therefore respectfully recommend that the committee take a position in favour of First Nations in Manitoba that Bill C-92 be abandoned or that you not support it, and that you call on Canada to establish a good faith and honourable process that explores developing a bill with First Nations in Manitoba that is reflective of the bringing our children home act. Such a bill would include recognition and incorporation of inherent First Nations jurisdiction, customs and laws and development of policies.
Alternatively, we ask that amendments to the bill be made to address the issues identified above and potentially use the following wording: “non-application to Manitoba First Nations”; include a new clause 35 that could read: “This act respects the existing memorandum of understanding between Canada and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs that provides for the development of Manitoba First Nations-specific legislation and, for greater certainty, this act does not apply to First Nations in Manitoba”; and clause 36: “This act recognizes that Canada will work with First Nations in Manitoba and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to develop Manitoba First Nations-specific legislation to meet the unique humanitarian crisis of child apprehension in the province of Manitoba and commit Parliament to introduce such a bill within the next year of this act coming into force.”
I look forward to your comments and questions.
The Chair: Thank you very much. The floor is open to questions from senators.
Senator Francis: I have questions for Ms. Birch. Thank you for coming. I’ve asked this question of other witnesses, and I will ask you as well. This is a pre-study, and the committee will give its best advice to the government in terms of potential amendments whether they choose to take our advice on every amendment or not. In your opinion, would we be better off with this bill or not at all?
Ms. Birch: I’m a member of the national advisory committee on First Nations child welfare reform, and we had talked about this, as many others have. Being on the committee, I was excited to know that this legislation was going to be written.
Originally, I thought it was what we had all talked about: that it was an enabling legislation and one that would allow First Nations to take on full responsibility for their children. Bill C-92 is not that. If certain amendments aren’t made to Bill C-92, it’s really not going to be any different than what we currently have in P.E.I., so it’s not going to be of benefit to us.
Unless specific things are changed, then I would say that it’s not going to be good for us.
Senator Francis: In regard to that, Ms. Birch, if there are three top things you would change in this bill, what would they be?
Ms. Birch: The first one would be funding. There is no funding attached to it. As the designated representative currently in P.E.I., there is no funding attached to that. I know how difficult it is to enact my responsibility without any funding, so I would say funding is a priority.
Second, under clause 3, “consideration” is a word that is used. It’s vague. “Consideration must be given” is not specific. That leaves things open to interpretation. Subclause 13(b) allows for representation of the Indigenous governing body but does not allow for full party status. Again, that’s no different than what we currently have in P.E.I.
Senator Francis: Thank you.
Senator Griffin: I think I can infer what the answer will be to my first question. I assume that the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island was not consulted when Bill C-92 was being developed. Am I correct?
Ms. Birch: That’s correct. It depends on whose definition of “consultation” you’re referring to.
Senator Griffin: I’m not referring to information. I’m referring to true consultation. I assume you did not get that.
Ms. Birch: That’s correct.
Senator Griffin: Okay. Thank you.
I think you’ve already answered my other question; funding needs to be set out. I assume you mean directly set out within the bill itself.
Ms. Birch: That’s correct.
Senator Griffin: We’re really cooking with gas here. We’re in great agreement.
Mr. Balfour had indicated that he does not support the bill. With appropriate amendments, how would the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island feel about the bill?
Ms. Birch: We would have to see what the amendments are. Again, I go back to what I had said initially: Our excitement was about the fact that First Nations were going to be able to make full decisions respecting their children. That has to be very clear. It has to be in this bill that that’s what it means.
Senator Griffin: Are you also saying that the bill, as it’s currently written, is something that you would not be able to support? Is it any improvement over the status quo?
Ms. Birch: Not really. The only difference would be that the provinces might have to pay more attention to what’s in it than they currently do, although it’s very vague. “Best interests of the child” is still very vague.
When applying those types of things, if it’s not clearly set out for the judicial system it leaves things open to their interpretation. That hasn’t worked. It’s not working now. That’s why the number of children in care in this country is so high. All of those things that are left open to interpretation, it depends on who is interpreting them and whose lens is being applied. If you apply a First Nations lens to the “best interests of the child,” then perhaps we would get it right.
Senator Griffin: Thank you.
Senator Patterson: Ms. Birch, could you please explain again to me the wording problems with clauses 3 and 13? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite understand what you said. You mentioned the word “consideration” which I had trouble finding in clause 9(3). Do you have new, recommended wording you could provide to us?
Ms. Birch: “Substantive equality” in clause 3 under “Principle”:
(a) the rights and distinct needs of a child with a disability are to be considered. . .
And (b), “preferences considered in decisions. . .”
It’s all throughout that clause.
Senator Patterson: That helps me. Okay, and the problem is?
Ms. Birch: Well, the word is “considered.” What does “considered” mean? It’s in every subclause: (a), (b), (c) and (d).
Senator Patterson: Thank you. Did you say you might have better wording to suggest to us?
Ms. Birch: I don’t know that I have better wording.
Senator Patterson: That’s okay.
Ms. Birch: I’m just pointing out that the word “considered” is perhaps too vague. Perhaps in the government’s desire to be more descriptive, they tried too hard. Maybe if it had just been a simple enabling legislation, we wouldn’t be getting into all these finer details.
Senator Patterson: May I direct a question to the Manitoba First Nations Family Advocate Office?
I am quite concerned about your recommendation that we basically reject the act. I’m from a territory so I’m probably betraying my ignorance here, but I understood there were significant problems with First Nations children in care in Manitoba. We’ve heard news reports about children in care being put in hotels and other unfortunate occurrences. I thought this bill was intended to allow First Nations organizations to basically develop their own legislation and take control away from provincial authorities.
You’ve mentioned that the MOU you signed in 2017 with Minister Philpott contemplated that change. Over a period of years, there was to be a transfer of total jurisdiction to Manitoba First Nations, as I understood it.
When you talked to the federal officials about the MOU being set aside by the act, what position did they take? Did they say that the act is in keeping with the MOU, or how did they respond to your concerns that the existing MOU was not respected in the act?
Mr. Balfour: I don’t want to put words in the officials’ mouths because I know note takers were there as well, but the positions of the AMC and the Manitoba First Nations Family Advocate Office have remained consistent in relations and in discussions with the former minister’s office in developing, putting forward and prioritizing Manitoba First Nations legislation. That is something that, regionally, wasn’t necessarily fully appreciated. Certainly with the announcement of Bill C-92 on the pan-Indigenous approach and not Manitoba-First-Nations-specific, it has been left unresolved.
Senator Patterson: You mentioned the need for substantial amendments. You recited a number of sections that were problematic. You recommended new sections 35 and 36. I’m just thinking out loud here, but would another alternative be to allow opting out of this act for a First Nation that has reached other arrangements with Canada?
Mr. Balfour: So instead of opting in, you opt out? I can’t speak on behalf of Manitoba First Nations who should properly know the contents of the bill but they don’t because they were never consulted. I would probably be consistent with the AMC’s position that any federal legislation needs Manitoba First Nation involvement with it. The chiefs need to understand and First Nation citizens should understand the content of any bill that they would automatically be involved with or be legislated by, so that they know what they are opting out of.
Senator Patterson: You signed the MOU with Minister Philpott who was very involved in developing this act until her portfolio was changed, I believe. Did you make progress under the MOU, towards its goals, since the MOU was signed? Were you working in good faith based on the MOU?
Mr. Balfour: Absolutely. To be clear — and I can provide senators with a copy of it — the MOU was not only with Minister Philpott but also with Carolyn Bennett, the current Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. Yes, absolutely; we had developed a work plan to implement the MOU. In discussions, the minister’s office requested that we focus specifically on Manitoba First Nation legislation itself. The overall MOU has a lot of good components in it, but our work plan was reduced to specifically focus on Manitoba-First-Nations-specific legislation. Importantly, in Manitoba we only have five language groups so we’re probably in a better position than other regions with many more language groups. We’ve been developing, along with the federal legislation, template laws in our five language groups as well.
Senator Patterson: Thank you.
Senator Coyle: Thank you to all our witnesses this evening. It’s so important for us to hear your perspectives, and we really appreciate your being so forthright with us. I have a question for each, if I may.
Ms. Birch, I’m your neighbour in Nova Scotia. We heard from Nova Scotia yesterday. You probably know that. I am curious. Let me just play back what I thought I heard and then I’ll get to my question. I think I heard you say you thought Bill C-92 was going to be the kind of enabling legislation which would enable First Nations to make full decisions about their children. Right?
Ms. Birch: Correct.
Senator Coyle: You’ve said that it is not that in its current form.
Ms. Birch: Correct.
Senator Coyle: Part of the problem is that there’s no funding in it, and too many things are left up to interpretation.
When we have had conversations with the department that’s responsible for this, and with others, they tell us that that’s the intention. The intention is for this to be enabling legislation and that things are not nailed down because it’s going to look different — from what I’ve heard — according to the First Nation, Inuit or Metis group that takes the reins and says, “Here’s how it’s going to look for us.” At least that’s how it’s been represented to us. We’ve also been told by different groups that some are more ready and willing than others to take the reins.
How would you describe the situation in P.E.I. in terms of the desire and the capacity to take the reins and actually fully take control of the responsibility for child welfare?
Ms. Birch: I indicated in my presentation that it’s something that we are moving towards. It’s not something that we can just do overnight. We won’t be ready when Bill C-92 is announced.
We’ve started the work on writing our own Mi’kmaq child welfare legislation. We hoped, and have had verbal confirmation from the province, that if we do that they will follow or apply that legislation to our First Nation children. That’s another stepping stone in our growth moving forward.
Senator Coyle: So step by step. But ultimately, if this was the kind of legislation with the sort of resources that were required, both to carry it out but also to build the capacity to carry it out, then that’s what you’re looking for?
Ms. Birch: That’s correct.
Senator Coyle: That’s really helpful. Thank you, Ms. Birch.
Now to our colleagues in Manitoba, you’re not the first people from Manitoba who have asked us to consider Manitoba as a very different case from most others we have heard from. Now I understand a little better with this description of the MOU.
The MOU that you describe, is it an MOU related to a whole variety of sectors and services, or is it specifically with child welfare?
Mr. Balfour: This most recent MOU with Canada is specific for child welfare.
Senator Coyle: Okay. And when was that signed?
Kayla Frank, Policy Analyst, Manitoba First Nations Family Advocate Office: December 2017.
Mr. Balfour: December 2017.
Senator Coyle: Okay, not that long ago.
Mr. Balfour: No.
Senator Coyle: I’m trying to understand the theory and the practice, because you are the ones who are now trying to match what we’re seeing here. Again, we’ve been told that if Manitoba First Nations, through this legislation or not, wanted to take on full responsibility and the legislative authority for child welfare among the children and families in your area, that in your way — not in this way or that — this legislation would enable you to do that. You talked about it being pan-Indigenous. That makes me think that you don’t think that’s the way it is. My interpretation of what you’re saying is that pan-Indigenous means there’s one way for all Indigenous groups, whereas we have been told something quite different. Could you speak to that?
Mr. Balfour: Can you rephrase the question? Are you asking about the pan-Indigenous nature of the bill and the issues that we have?
Senator Coyle: We’ve been told this bill is an enabling instrument for First Nations, Metis and Inuit to take control of their own child and family welfare concerns. We’ve been told that each group and each subgroup can take that and shape it appropriately to their own needs, wants, desires, culture, environment, you name it.
The interpretation we’ve been given — and some of us have been reading it and trying to understand it — doesn’t sound pan-Indigenous. But the fact that you would like to have a bilateral approach, as opposed to being part of a sweeping national one, I get that. We’ve been told there’s plenty of room for many different kinds of interpretations driven by each party to it — not Canada driving it, but the First Nations themselves — so what in that is a problem for you, first of all? And then how do you see that as pan-Indigenous?
Mr. Balfour: So it’s pan-Indigenous because it specifically refers to Metis, First Nation and Inuit which, from a First Nation perspective, we don’t speak on behalf of Metis or Inuit. They may have unique circumstances and a different relationship than the Crown-First Nation treaty relationship that Manitoba First Nations have.
Senator Coyle: Sure.
Mr. Balfour: But the approach in which the act sort of says exactly what you have; you can do whatever you want, take control, exert whatever —
Senator Coyle: Exactly.
Mr. Balfour: Then you have all those sections you have to follow: section 4, section 7, section 10, the application of these various sections within all the checklists that you have to go through. That does not respect First Nation jurisdiction when it comes to how Canada forces First Nations to go to the province and get an agreement with them to be able to do certain things.
We’ve also been told, “Oh, don’t worry about it, if you don’t have an agreement within a year, you can just do whatever you want. You’ve got your own line, you can follow your law.”
Senator Coyle: We were told that yesterday.
Mr. Balfour: If that’s the case, we’ve asked technical people from Canada, “Then why do we need to refer to the province in federal legislation? Why not just take them out?”
Senator Coyle: So why even bother going through that step?
Mr. Balfour: Right, exactly.
Senator Coyle: I understand what you’re saying. What I’ve heard from you and others is that there’s a particularly unhappy relationship with the province.
Mr. Balfour: Absolutely. As a member from Norway House Cree Nation where Jordan’s Principle began, we have innovative approaches at the local level for CFS. We also have a good history here from a First Nation perspective, at least in Manitoba, of working with Canada and all our First Nations through the Manitoba Framework Agreement Initiative from a number of years ago. That was an agreement to dismantle Indian Affairs and get rid of that oversight so that we could exert our own jurisdiction. We also had the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry-Child Welfare Initiative, which led to the current system and was not meant to be permanent. It was supposed to be transitional until we, under our own jurisdiction, looked after our children and families.
Senator Coyle: Thank you very much.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: Good evening. Thank you very much for coming today and for sharing your presentations. My first question is for Ms. Birch.
We are working on a funding amendment for sure. Every single person who has sat in front of us has said that their number one concern is funding. We hear that loud and clear and we’re working on it. The Senate’s capacity to make a funding amendment doesn’t exist. That has to happen at the House of Commons, but the good news is the house hasn’t finished their work yet. There’s still the opportunity to get that done.
One of the ideas we have — and I wonder what you think about this — is to add another section to the principle of substantive equality, a funding piece that talks about substantive equality from the perspective of funding. It would sit inside the bill, inside the principle. What do you think about that? Would that satisfy your needs around funding security?
Ms. Birch: Possibly. If you look at the CHRT ruling, that’s why it’s so important that funding piece be in there. If it’s not, once the commission no longer has authority over the decision, we will be right back to where we have been. We don’t want to go backwards, and that’s why that piece is so important.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I’m sure that when the minister is here tomorrow every person at this table will be asking him about funding. I’m just guessing. We have been told that because of the human rights decision the government has to pay actuals and, as a result, their budget almost doubled in the last couple of years. They are held to that tribunal decision that says they have to pay actuals.
It doesn’t really talk about prevention. If we look at a funding principle around substantive equality, it would say if you want to do prenatal care, that’s not an actual that’s necessarily being paid right now. That might help make it possible to do some of the more interesting things like prenatal care, keeping families together and providing support to families. We’ll keep you posted on that, or you can listen tomorrow.
The other thing I believe you said is that it was 13(b). I have heard people have an issue with (a), but not necessarily with (b):
(b) the Indigenous governing body acting on behalf of the Indigenous group, community or people to which the child belongs has the right to make representations.
What’s the issue with that?
Ms. Birch: Currently, I’m the designated representative for Abegweit and Lennox Island First Nations, and I go to court because I receive notices as per the existing Child Protection Act. I’m allowed to make submissions on behalf of the First Nations, but I don’t have any authority. First Nations don’t have any authority other than that. That’s why I’m so concerned about this recommendation.
I’ve been in court and made recommendations on behalf of the First Nation, and the judge has not followed my recommendations a number of times. I’m not saying they have to agree to every single point or abide by whatever my recommendations are, but I’ve been in court more often where they have not than they have, so that’s why this is so important from my perspective.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I have some experience in family court back in Alberta, so I know what you’re saying. To me, 13(b) elevates the work of a family court worker or somebody like yourself representing the nation, so that your standing would therefore mean that what you are offering must be considered. I thought 13(b) would elevate your participation and make it so the judge has to consider what you have to say, but you’re not reading it that way.
Ms. Birch: I’m not reading it that way, because right now the P.E.I. Child Protection Act allows me to make submissions to the court. I see this as very similar to that.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I just thought it would encourage the judge to deeply consider what you would have to say, but I’m going to ask the legal folks about that one to get clarification.
Ms. Birch: It’s open to interpretation by the judge, right? And that’s another concern that I have with regard to that wording.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: Do you have any concerns with 13(a) about elevating care providers to have standing in party status?
Ms. Birch: I absolutely agree with that. Existing legislation in Prince Edward Island only allows for the parent or someone who has been caring for a child for more than one year consecutively, so all the other important people involved in the child’s life don’t have any legal standing.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: Some people have brought up that the non-Indigenous foster family would now get standing, whereas in many provinces and territories they don’t have standing right now because they don’t have a blood connection, and they’re asking for a clarification. You’re reading it as a grandmother and auntie, and I was reading it as non-Indigenous foster parents.
Ms. Birch: I was not reading it that way.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I think the way you read it is the intention it was written with, but I have a cynical mind.
Ms. Birch: I think that’s why all of this is so concerning. There are so many things left to interpretation. You are not seeing it the same way I am seeing it, and that is why there are so many things about this that are very worrisome. Canada doesn’t see it the same way. They see it as an enabling legislation, but we’re not seeing it that way either.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I have a question for our friends in Manitoba, and it’s more just to pick your brain. I agree the bill wasn’t co-developed. One of the things that we heard when I met with the national chief and some of the minister’s staff is that when they were building the bill and consulting Indigenous groups on the bill, they were told that they had to put a minimum standard in this bill as a prevention. Regarding best interests of the child, for example, the Indigenous laws that would come forward had to meet the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and this was a back stop or a fail-safe that Indigenous people asked them to put into the law.
When I hear you and some other people talking, there is an issue with that because it seems like if Indigenous law is going to prevail, it should prevail. We should not have anything on the best interests of the child or anything hearkening back to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I would like to hear you talk about that more. I have to admit I don’t know what the think about that. There’s a part of me that says we should have a back stop to ensure there is a minimum standard across the land. I can’t see any Indigenous law not upholding the rights of the child inside the family. My understanding of an interconnected world view is that our laws are higher than the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and are stricter than that.
Talk to me a little about how we would manage a minimum standard and yet still elevate Indigenous law in Canadian society to be the prevailing law in child and family services.
Mr. Balfour: Personally, I think that the idea of an enabling federal legislation is really to get around the jurisdictional issues that we have as it relates to the current federal system that we have and to be able to directly fund our First Nations to look after our own kids. It would be great if there were a requirement to be able to say, “Hey, First Nations, in our relationship with you, recognizing our treaty and our nation-to-nation relationship, you have inherent jurisdiction and are able to make those laws yourself.” This is the way Canada can support that. “Here’s some funding to be able to do it, and we respect your jurisdiction to do it.”
However, with respect to the whole approach of the pan-Indigenous nature of the bill, the minimum standards of the Charter in section 15, best interests of the child and all these parts that you have to tick off, by the time you get to where it is supposed to be exerting our own jurisdiction from a First Nation point of view, it really is not that at all. I think there are ways to do it by way of recognition of our third level of jurisdiction, and it doesn’t have to be wrapped in federal legislation.
With that said, the desire to have, across the country, the same type of legislation that applies to Metis, First Nations and Inuit is a good thing. But Canada hasn’t forced that upon a lot of the activity that it has done, so it has region-specific, project-specific enabling legislation that’s reflected in agreements, self-government agreements and everything else.
There are different ways to potentially be able to go around needing to have so many pages and sections that spell all this out. It really is not necessarily fully needed other than, as I understand it, the recommendation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to come up with some national legislation on this. If the political promise to say we’re going to do federal legislation but ram it through without respecting First Nations jurisdiction or even engaging Manitoba First Nations, consulting with our people to be able to be clear on this, I can tell you this: With the AFN process, there wasn’t any Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs participation on this. The leadership was not involved in any of these criteria or the development of them. We were very consistent that at least Manitoba’s jurisdiction should be recognized.
It’s ground zero for child apprehension here in Manitoba. Former Minister Philpott said that, and Minister Bennett has said that as well. This is a unique region, unique province and First Nation situation with our current and previous provincial government that needs to have unique and innovative ways to deal with federal legislation and working with First Nations.
Senator Pate: Thanks to all of you for being here. This question is for all of you. You may be aware that another committee is looking at amending the Divorce Act, Bill C-78. That committee is looking at the key objectives of promoting the best interests of the child, addressing family violence, reducing child poverty and making Canada’s family justice system more accessible and efficient in the context of family breakdown. I’m curious to know how you see this and that piece of legislation intersecting.
A witness who was before us previously has recommended that we explicitly reference the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in this bill as a means of ensuring that the primacy of this bill exists when we’re talking about divorce proceedings and the like.
I’m wondering if you would share your thoughts on how you think these two bills might interact and other issues that you have identified. And is there is anything you would recommend, in terms of how to ensure that we consider the interests of Indigenous children in divorce proceedings as well as family breakdown in conjunction with the provisions in Bill C-92?
Ms. Birch: Absolutely, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples needs to be part of this. If you look at UNDRIP and what it says about children, it needs to be referenced in a bill or Bill C-92.
I’m not quite sure I understand your question around the Divorce Act.
Senator Pate: The concern might be that other issues may take precedence. For instance, if you’re looking at poverty, the whole issue of how many Indigenous children are living in poverty and the presumption that poverty may mitigate against the best interests of the child of staying in an Indigenous community. In looking at the two together, it strikes me that you may want to look — and it was brought to our attention by a committee witness — at making sure this bill takes primacy in those kinds of situations, including the Divorce Act. Otherwise you end up with competing legislation and fighting about it in court.
Ms. Birch: Also, a child should not be taken into care because of poverty.
Mr. Balfour: I’m apprehensive. I don’t know if you are also considering a private member’s bill for the implementation of the UNDRIP, but I know that there is an attempt to be able to legislate that federally. If there is a requirement for each bill to refer to UNDRIP, that’s interesting. We have no official position with respect to that bill you’re looking at right now, how it intersects with this particular bill. I’m only here to speak on this bill.
Senator Christmas: I realize our time is short, so I have one question for Mr. Balfour. You mentioned in your presentation that in your pursuit of the Bringing Our Children Home Act, the AMC was drafting traditional family law templates for the five linguistic groups in your province. Could you tell me how that progressed and what were some of the expectations in drafting traditional family law templates?
Mr. Balfour: We have five teams of our five language groups working with our First Nations directly to develop and identify those principles and foundational components of what those laws would be.
The discussions and drafting are ongoing. We should hope to be able to have our first one completed in the very near future in Oji-Cree. There are different numbers and availability. It’s a challenge working with communities on such an important component piece.
We’re not being prescriptive at all, and we’re making sure that we listen to the language speakers, elders and grandmothers in this process.
Senator Christmas: Are these laws being drafted in their own languages?
Mr. Balfour: Yes.
Senator Christmas: That’s very interesting. Now I can understand your great disappointment where you embarked on this process and then what was dumped on you basically was this huge law. I can see why your expectations were dashed.
Do you still hold a position that what should happen here is a Manitoba-specific family and child services law?
Mr. Balfour: Absolutely. The position of the chiefs has been to make sure that they exert their jurisdiction, that it’s focused on a Manitoba First Nation response to our current problematic relationship with the Province of Manitoba. We believe, from a First Nation-Canada point of view, we can do some good things in this region.
Senator Christmas: I believe so, too, Mr. Balfour. Just in the interests of time, I will end my questions there.
Thank you very much.
The Chair: I would like to thank our presenters for their words this evening. Mr. Balfour, I believe you mentioned that you were willing to provide a copy of the MOU to the committee.
Mr. Balfour: Yes.
The Chair: So you will send that to the committee clerk fairly shortly?
Mr. Balfour: I will email it as soon as we turn off the camera.
The Chair: That’s fairly shortly. Thank you very much on behalf of the committee.
As we continue our work on the pre-study of Bill C-92, the committee is pleased to welcome our second panel. From Youth in Care Canada, Ashley Bach, President; and from Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, Holly Anderson, Guardianship Manager; and Cheyenne Andy, Senior Youth Advisory member. Thank you for being with us this evening.
Ms. Bach, the floor is yours.
Ashley Bach, President, Youth in Care Canada: Thank you.
[Editor’s Note: Ms. Bach spoke in her Indigenous language.]
Good evening, senators. I’d like to acknowledge that we’re on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory for this important meeting. My name is Ashley Bach Wesley. I’m from the Mishkeegogamang First Nation, and I am president of Youth in Care Canada. Youth in Care Canada is a national charitable organization driven by youth and alumni from child welfare authorities across Canada. Youth in Care Canada exists to voice the opinions and concerns of youth in and from care. I’m honoured to be with you today and aim to share some experiences of Indigenous youth in and from care to inform your study of Bill C-92.
Before I continue, I would like to take a moment to remember the Indigenous youth in and from care whom we have lost as a result of inadequate child welfare systems. I want to remember Kanina Sue Turtle, Santanna Scott-Huntinghawk, Alex Gervais, Paige Gauchier, Kawliga Potts, Tammy Keeash, Courtney Scott, Tina Fontaine, Amy Owen and so many other Indigenous youth who died during or after leaving child welfare systems in Canada.
As president of Youth in Care Canada, I can’t provide you a detailed legal or policy analysis as that’s outside the abilities of our volunteer-run organization. However, I can share my story as well as the experiences of others to provide a youth perspective on a bill that may soon dictate our lives and the lives of our siblings and friends.
I hope that the committee will listen to these experiences, hear from more Indigenous youth who are in the system, and use what is shared to develop amendments that will provide the best possible care and support for Indigenous youth in and from care. I also hope the committee will consider Youth in Care Canada’s submission, which is in the process of being translated and goes further into these issues.
My story begins in Vancouver, B.C. I was taken into the care of the B.C. Ministry of Children & Family Development shortly after I was born. My bio mom was struggling with addiction on the Downtown Eastside likely a result of intergenerational trauma from my grandmother attending residential school. I was placed into the Indigenous stream of foster care with a non-Indigenous family in Langley, B.C. and was adopted by them when I was five.
My adoptive family kept fostering Indigenous kids but they weren’t equipped to provide culturally sensitive care, nor care that could help address the racism, queer-phobia, religious conformity and other discrimination we kids experienced in that town. As a result, I was raised without knowing my language, culture, territory or even the name of my First Nation and did not have support to connect with my community or my biological family. As a teen trying to address these issues on my own, I was threatened with being kicked out or sent back to foster care. My backup plan was to use the money I had saved up to move into a hostel in Vancouver until my band funding for university started.
I’m fortunate to be thriving after several difficult years and also to be on a journey reconnecting with my community, but it’s difficult to undo the harms done by colonial child welfare systems. For example, many elders and family members in my community have already passed away, and the lessons I should have learned from them as well as from the land as a child are irreplaceable.
There are many barriers to creating and maintaining community connections: Financial, social and otherwise. I know my story is not unique and many other Indigenous youth in and from care face similar struggles and far worse. Adding in the failures of existing child welfare systems plus the inequities that Indigenous communities face, it’s nearly impossible for Indigenous youth in and from care to survive and to thrive, let alone reconnect.
We have seen what happens when funding is inadequate or program design is flawed. You end up with the loss of caring and dedicated child welfare workers, reduced support programs and corners being cut on the care that’s provided so ends can be met. Inadequate funding in programs especially impact Indigenous youth who are aging out or leaving care. How can Indigenous youth leaving care manage to reconnect to their communities when their entire support systems have been cut off, they suddenly have to live on their own and there are few programs to prepare them for this?
Youth in and from care, especially Indigenous youth, can be forgotten and even die as a result. This makes me think about all the youth I named earlier on, and so many others. I am worried for my foster siblings who are still in care, and their futures and lives.
This leads me to the recommended amendments from Youth in Care Canada for Bill C-92. We think Indigenous youth in and from care would benefit from a provision to clarify that Indigenous youth in and from care must be heard in the development and review of legislation, regulations, policies and programs that may impact them. There should be a provision requiring all provincial and territorial child welfare systems to track Indigenous youth in and from care and associated accountability measures along with that.
We would like to see specific provisions to better enable access to community, culture, language, land, spirituality and family, especially for Indigenous youth who will remain in provincial or territorial child welfare systems. Provisions to ensure sufficient and equitable support for Indigenous youth that are leaving care, including provisions for continued support to access cultural and traditional territories should be considered. There should be provisions to continue access to essential services, and provisions enabling Indigenous youth leaving care from any child welfare system, be it Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to receive transitional support from provinces and territories, including post-secondary tuition waivers, subsidized housing and extended care agreements, if needed.
As well, we recommend a provision guaranteeing Indigenous youth in and from care access to their personal information without unreasonable delay, and a provision protecting these files from misuse by others. Finally, there should be a provision requiring sufficient and equitable funding for Indigenous child welfare systems, and a provision clarifying that Indigenous youth in and from any system of care should not have to experience financial need or deficiencies in their care before sufficient and equitable resources, including funding, are allocated.
With that, I would like to say meegwetch to the committee for the opportunity to speak today, and I look forward to your questions.
The Chair: Thank you.
Cheyenne Andy, Senior Youth Advisory member, Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society: Good evening, respected members of the standing Senate committee. I am from the Nuxalk Nation in Bella Coola. I would like to acknowledge the traditional territory of the Algonquin peoples and express my gratitude for being a guest on this territory.
I am a senior member of the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society’s Youth Advisory Committee, and I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you today. I acknowledge that including the voices of Indigenous youth from care into this process is respectful and speaks to the reconciliatory efforts of this government.
I am here representing the voices of the youth on our committee and in our agency. I acknowledge that our voices are guided by our lived experience in care, mentors in our agency and our own ancestors who experienced the attempts at cultural genocide and destruction of our traditional way of life.
Our committee consists of 12 urban Indigenous youth from a variety of communities across the country who are either in care or formerly in the care of VACFSS. We provide voice to policy and standards that impact children and youth in our care, and also advocate for change in the larger child welfare system.
We believe that decision-making power over Indigenous children should rest in the child’s family in the community they belong to and where their right to be situated in their cultural teachings is protected. We are grateful for this shift for our brothers and sisters in the community and for their families.
We would like to assert that an Indigenous child welfare system or model must be situated in healing opportunities for children, youth and their families. Indigenous child welfare needs to move from a mainstream model focused solely on safety to a model situated in an Indigenous world view, with a focus on healing, interconnectedness, our own teachings and cultural interventions. We are excited that this legislation offers promise towards that model.
As many people have highlighted before me, the proposed legislation is silent to funding, and this causes concern. There are many communities struggling with access to clean water, safe housing, and basic infrastructure. This legislation must address funding to communities to provide holistic-healing, community-driven services that span from prevention through to intervention, for this is not to be used as a tool against communities’ capacity.
Also, as others have highlighted before me, we are confused about where accountability rests in this legislation. If it is not being followed, how is this addressed and enforced, and by whom? Too often, young people are given overarching promises without tangible support, and we very much wish for this process not to be another example of this.
As Indigenous youth representatives from an urban agency, we are conscious that the legislation is silent in critical areas that have and are impacting our lives.
First, with this legislation there is an opportunity to set an overarching direction to the provinces for practical and useful post-majority services — support that is critical for children and youth leaving child welfare systems, particularly in urban environments. Currently, the provinces are varied in respect to this area of inequality that has the potential to be addressed by this legislation.
The outcomes and access to services should not be different post-foster care in Ontario or B.C., yet they very much are. Instead of being silent on the issue of youth aging out of care, this legislation should speak to best post-majority services supported by delegated social work that is not voluntary or solely financial, an after-care system that continues to be grounded in cultural continuity and offers graduated support to prevent the many challenging outcomes for Indigenous youth in care. This should include, but not be limited to, vulnerability to mental health issues, to addiction, to becoming a missing or murdered Aboriginal woman and to repeating the cycle of child welfare. These are preventable outcomes that this legislation has the potential to address.
Second, we know that section 16 of the proposed legislation speaks to the placement of an Indigenous child. The last placement option is with a responsible adult. As the overall legislation speaks to the importance of cultural continuity, this section could be strengthened to say “a responsible adult who commits to cultural continuity for the child,” to ensure they have every opportunity to learn about their own culture even when placed with a responsible adult.
Finally, this legislation is silent to the urban Indigenous child welfare experience that we have lived through. We deserve the same protection of cultural continuity, substantive equality and to have our rights as Indigenous young peoples enshrined and protected by this overarching legislation. Some of us do not have a community to speak for us, yet we deserve the same legislative rights and protections. We wish for the committee to be mindful of our lives and lived experiences.
Like many of our people, colleagues and community, we too share a vision of the next generation of Aboriginal children and youth having freedom from harsh systemic interventions and having the support and ability to access services in their communities from their people, in line with their culture, knowledge and traditions; and where, if possible, they can be raised by their aunts, grandmothers, sisters and friends in those communities. We are hopeful this legislation is one tool to put that vision into action.
The Chair: Thank you very much. The session is now open to questions from senators.
Senator Pate: Thank you very much too all of you, but particularly Ashley and Cheyenne, for being here. As someone who has been involved with the Youth in Care Network since the 1980s — I’m really old, so probably before you were both born — it’s wonderful to see the leadership you continue to demonstrate throughout this country. Congratulations on that, and thank you.
Both of you mentioned young people aging out. One of the issues I’d like you to talk a bit more about, if you can, is that we often think, and this bill conjures up the idea of babies and little children; however, many Indigenous young people, in particular, end up in care in their teenage years. Often they don’t get the same benefits. They’re often, in fact, encouraged not to come into care and are put into rather precarious situations. I was reminded of that when you spoke about Tina.
I’m wondering if you could talk about what you would recommend be put in place. It’s not for you to tell us how to put that in legal terms, but what else might be in there that would assist particularly young people who are coming into care as teenagers, as well as those who are aging out? Unlike many people who are not in care, at 18 we don’t get dumped out and have no family or support, but that’s what happens to far too many young people in care. What else could be in here that would assist in that process?
Ms. Andy: I think the first thing that comes to mind when I think about aging out of care is the fact that a lot of youth don’t get transition services earlier on. They start at 18 and they do everything really quickly and don’t go into detail and don’t give them the important life skills they need in order to transition into adulthood.
I think another important thing that our committee speaks a lot about is the age at which aging out of care occurs. It’s at 19, but if it could be extended even to voluntarily staying in care until 24, I think that that would be really impactful.
I know from my own lived experience. I still live with the foster parents that I grew up with. I had a very blessed experience where I have lived in the same home my whole life, having that support and the ability to ask them some life questions while I’m still going through it. Nineteen is such a young age, so it was really helpful for me.
Ms. Bach: I think for teenagers who are entering care, they’re at the age when they have a voice. They’re able to identify what they think is best for them and they have opinions about what’s going to happen to them. For starters, it’s important to listen to who they think they should be in care with, whether that’s their grandmother, an aunt, an older sibling who’s now a legal adult or someone outside the community. It’s important to listen to that first. Listen to their voices as well as providing the opportunity for them to be heard.
When it comes to leaving care, it’s also important to consider that youth don’t necessarily have a safety net when they leave, so those services can’t just be cut off. It doesn’t matter what the province or territory says, be it at age 18 or 19; it is, quite frankly, inequitable for those services to be cut off and for youth to essentially be kicked out of their homes and be asked to live somewhere else and become self-sufficient overnight.
That really needs to be reflected in this bill. It’s something that’s lacking. It’s something that will affect youth who are in care on reserve and youth who are in care off reserve, in urban centres or rural areas. It’s something that teenagers face and it’s also something that we’ve seen leads to a lot of pain. Several of the youth whose names I read off died just before or just after they aged out of care, be it through suicide, overdose or going missing.
Senator Pate: Thank you very much.
Senator Francis: Thank you both so much for sharing your stories with us and giving a voice to your peers. You bring an expertise that I think has been lacking in our analysis up to now, so thank you both, again, for that.
What are three changes in the Indigenous child welfare system you would like to see in the near future, be it through to legislation or not?
Ms. Andy: I think one of the things that I had highlighted was funding. When I speak about funding, one point I want to add is that every community deserves the opportunity to receive funding and the chance to take on child welfare. I know that would mean providing a lot more, and I know that there’s been a lot of discussion around it. I mentioned having clean water and proper shelter and things like that, so that every community can be successful in taking on child welfare.
I also think accountability and provisions for youth leaving care, which we just spoke to as well, are important. As I was reading over this bill, it was really silent to an urban Indigenous experience.
Ms. Bach: There are many changes to child welfare in general I would like to see. More specifically for Indigenous child welfare, I think access to the land in your traditional territories isn’t something that’s discussed as much but it’s really important.
Growing up, I had over 30 foster siblings and they’re all Indigenous. Almost all of them were from territories outside of British Columbia, but they ended up in care in B.C. because their parents were on the Downtown Eastside. None of us ever had access to the territories that we should have grown up on, learned from and been sustained by.
When you miss out on being raised on the land in that way, or at least being raised experiencing the land and the environment around you, that’s something that’s very difficult to replace.
As well, I’d like to see true cultural continuity. When people think about Indigenous culture and access to culture, it can’t just be to take your foster kid to pow-wow once a year. That’s not enough. It’s entirely inadequate. At the same time, I’m Anishinaabe and I grew up out west in Langley, B.C., near the Kwantlen First Nation, and those are two different communities with different beliefs. For that cultural continuity, you also need to have access to elders from your community, or at least from your region, and access to people who speak the language in the dialect from the region that your community is in. There’s a lot there that needs to be changed.
Finally, as I think everyone who’s been a witness at the committee has mentioned, funding and resources need to be allocated for First Nations to be able to support this, as well as for provincial and territorial child welfare systems and other Indigenous communities to be able to implement these things.
Senator Francis: Thank you both very much.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: I have so many questions I want to ask you. I’m having a hard time making a decision. I just finished producing a video and doing a research project on what children in care who have experienced trauma need to heal. I think what you’ve been sharing has been about your healing journeys.
This piece of legislation defines the Indigenous governing body quite broadly. I think they imagined that an Indigenous group in an urban centre could access this legislation and provide services. I know, for example, in Alberta, Treaty 8 has opened up an office in Edmonton. Even though their territory is further north, lots of their kids were placed in Edmonton, so now they have an office there.
If you were going to advise an urban Indigenous organization in beginning to do this kind of child welfare work, what would you say to them? What would their services need to look like? It talks about the best interests of the child here, and I think a lot of what you asked for could be seen and interpreted in that. When the program opens, what do you think an urban Indigenous child welfare program should offer?
Ms. Andy: When you think of the best interests of the child, I think more about what would be ideal. I’ve had conversations with other people about how, in my opinion, supports need to be the first step before taking a child away. I’ve heard of a lot of cases of children being taken away without enough research being done.
There is also the idea that we focus on the child. I know that in a lot of communities, their centre is the child. It could look like keeping the kids in their environment, in their houses and homes and where they go to school. What practices do they have where their family lives? Instead of taking them outside of what they’re familiar with, support the parents in a different location or in a different way, in a healing way, while giving stability to the children so they don’t have to go through moving from home to home.
Oftentimes our committee speaks about moving homes and what that means. If you move to seven different homes, that’s seven different schools, learning how to make new friends seven times, seven different teachers. It interrupts education in itself, and things like that.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: One of the biggest things we heard was the trauma of apprehension and relocation being as important to consider as the trauma that children experience in their biological families. The apprehension and relocation are just as traumatic and need to be treated. I hear what you’re saying, for sure.
Ms. Andy: I also think there’s a lot of trauma and shame in feeling like we don’t know our own culture. I feel like the culture should be in place beforehand. This bill is saying handing child welfare over to the First Nations community. If that were possible, I think that we could avoid that trauma and shame. Because, for me, personally, I was raised with non-Indigenous parents. I don’t know a lot about my own culture from the Nuxalk Nation. I only know bits and pieces that I’ve learned from Coast Salish peoples, because I’m located in Vancouver. Sometimes I struggle with people asking me to speak to something I don’t know about, like my own culture. I end up feeling really awful about it, and that is really traumatic in itself.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: It is. Thank you.
Ms. Bach: For an office in an urban area, it’s still important to really consider what the child wants and needs. Again, when it comes to apprehension, I understand it sometimes has to happen quickly without letting the child know, but whenever that can be avoided, that’s important. It’s important to talk to the child and listen to what they think they need, whom they think they need to be with, who can support them and not to cut off their family unless it’s necessary for the child’s safety. That’s absolutely the first point.
When it comes to the best interests of the child, oftentimes children, and youth especially, know what’s good for them. They know what they want and need. As well, the First Nations know what’s in the best interests of children. Indigenous communities in general know what’s in the best interests of their children.
Sometimes I get a little worried about terms like “the best interests of the child” because, if that’s being defined by a colonial government, they will define it as if they know what the best interests of the child are and will intervene. That should be flipped. Instead, it should be understood that the Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples know what’s in the best interests of their own children, and they should intervene in the colonial system.
Senator LaBoucane-Benson: Awesome. Thank you.
Senator Christmas: I agree with Senator Francis that you provide a very valuable lived experience. Your witness and testimony before us can’t be replaced; it is that valuable.
I want to thank you for being the voice of youth in care. I realize that it’s not an easy role, but you’ve done this very courageously. Please don’t feel that there’s any shame or anything like that. In fact, if you knew how much we admire you for the work you’re doing, you would have a very different perspective.
You described the shift from safety to healing. That’s a totally different way of thinking about child welfare. For those children and youth living in urban situations, how do you see that shift happening? Just think of those youth or children whom you know in care. For those kids, how would you envision that changing from safety to healing? Can you give me examples of how children in those situations can be helped with a different model of healing, rather than just safety?
Ms. Andy: Personally, something that has been really healing is being a part of the Youth Advisory Committee at VACFSS. It has done a lot for my confidence. It has given me a lot of opportunities. I’ve been able to network, but I’ve also been able to interact with other Indigenous youth in and from care. That has really helped with my healing. Beforehand, I was just in an urban setting. I didn’t know and I felt like I was different. I felt like I was really struggling. I wondered why I was being pulled out of class, for example, to go to counselling. That was really hard.
Another important thing is that I had a really amazing social worker. She went out of her way to make sure that I had the support that I needed, that I was able to learn a bit of the Coast Salish culture. She left the door open because I wasn’t ready, at first, to learn about my own culture. A lot of youth in care face stereotypes and racism. Because they don’t know about their own culture, they just decide they don’t want to be identified with it. It’s heartbreaking to see, because they’re all so strong and independent.
Ms. Bach: When we talk about safety, we think of coming in, putting a barrier around someone, or removing them and putting a barrier around a kid to keep them safe. I imagine it in my head as putting the child in a bubble. Keeping them in that safe, pristine environment where they can’t be harmed and where they won’t feel pain or their feelings won’t be hurt. When I think about healing, I know you do have to go out of your comfort zone, particularly when it comes to healing from things you’ve experienced in child welfare. At least in my case, it requires talking about things that were harmful and thinking about them and going through it probably with a medical professional or a counsellor, someone who can provide that sort of support for you. It’s something that can’t be expected to happen immediately. It’s something that needs to be available for those who are willing, interested or considering taking it on.
Ms. Andy: I’ll also add that when I think of transitioning from safety to healing, I think about all the struggles we face. Help comes when it’s crucial and critical. It doesn’t come right away when we start talking about these feelings we’re having or when something small happens. When we transition to a healing way, it’s helping at the first step rather than when it becomes an emergency.
Senator Christmas: I’m not sure how to ask this question, but do you have an opinion on where those healing services should come from? I don’t know, in the urban setting, if those services come from Indigenous services or whether your only option is non-Indigenous services. Do you have an opinion on where that healing should come from?
Ms. Bach: It really depends on where you live. When I lived in Toronto, there was pretty good access to services through Anishinawbe Health Toronto. They provided a lot of space for healing. Healing isn’t just about yourself. If you went through something with your family and you had to be apprehended, and if you’re at the point where you’re talking with them and you’re able to interact with them, then healing also becomes about healing with the family or the community. That might not necessarily happen in a cultural space like Anishinawbe Health Toronto, because other people might not necessarily be comfortable with that. But it might come down to where it’s available. It would be ideal if it could happen in a cultural space, but also understanding that Western medicine methods are available and could be helpful too.
Ms. Andy: I think it should be mandatory within this bill or within urban child welfare in itself. We’re speaking about healing within urban Indigenous child welfare. I’m a big advocate for mental health. I know that a lot of Indigenous children in care struggle with mental health, and I know this bill speaks directly to child welfare.
On another note, for example, if a youth is suicidal, they go to a hospital and then they’re kicked out. I think there should be mandatory programs within the urban child welfare organization to help with the healing process, rather than just having the youth continue a cycle of feeling like crap, getting kicked out, feeling okay, feeling like crap, getting kicked out, feeling okay. I also think that friendship centres are really important.
Senator Patterson: Thank you both for your work and for sharing your stories.
Ms. Bach, you talked about the importance of giving a voice to Indigenous youth in care and tracking them. Could you tell us a bit about Youth in Care Canada and how it’s supported? I believe you have reach across the country. Could you tell us a bit more about your organization?
I am also interested in the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, how it is organized and funded, if you would.
Ms. Bach: Youth in Care Canada is a youth-run organization. We have a board of directors that consists of at least 50 per cent youth, which we define as between the ages of 18 and 29. Everyone has to have lived experience in child welfare in Canada to be on the board.
Specifically, we have done a lot in the past in terms of establishing youth in care networks across the country in various provinces, providing a space where youth can amplify their voices and experiences, as well as producing research on important topics and overall to start to shape legislation and systems that essentially control and dictate their lives and their experiences in care.
Youth in Care Canada supports the development of networks. We’re currently looking at developing a network for Ontario, since there isn’t one right now.
We have also done broad, national-level reviews. We have a paper that will hopefully come out sometime next month regarding the rights of children and youth in care, as well as experiences surrounding having rights respected as a youth in care. We produce research like that.
We also generally have membership. We have good contacts across the country, be it through networks, child advocates’ offices and certain ministries as well.
Senator Patterson: If you don’t mind my asking, are you funded? Can you tell us a bit about that? I know you mentioned volunteers.
You’re asking us to make amendments. Another thing the committee can possibly do is to make observations about this issue. So I’d like to find out a bit more about your organization. If you don’t mind my asking, do you receive federal funding?
Ms. Bach: Unfortunately, we don’t have any core funding. Occasionally, we’ll receive funding for Canada Summer Jobs, and that would be the only federal funding we receive. We also have various grants through, for example, the Laidlaw Foundation — they are funding our work in implementing a network for youth in and from care in Ontario — and other organizations as well.
The funding we get is mainly from our membership. We also do a couple of fundraisers every year. So no core funding.
Senator Patterson: May I ask Ms. Anderson a bit about the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, please?
Holly Anderson, Guardianship Manager, Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society: Cheyenne has asked me to speak to the funding agreements that the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society hold. It’s an area that maybe our youth advisory isn’t as clear on. VACFSS is a provincial Delegated Aboriginal Agency, or DAA. We receive solely provincial dollars in child welfare. Our youth advisory committee is unfunded. It is a reflection of our values in honouring the voices of the Indigenous young people we represent. The provincial youth advisory, for example, is funded. Ours is not. We gain efficiencies from the agency and put it towards funding the youth advisory committee. Arguably, the youth voice should always be funded. However, it is what it is.
Senator Patterson: You’ve said what I was thinking and why I was asking. Thank you.
The Chair: We have come to the end of our questioning. On behalf of committee members, I would like to thank our youth witnesses tonight. You have given us some amazing insights. We thank you for that.
Senators, we have received the MOU from Mr. Balfour, but it’s only in English. Translation will take a few days. So for the sake of time — we need this tomorrow — if the committee agrees, could we circulate the document in English only tomorrow morning, with translation to follow?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
The Chair: Thank you. Motion agreed to.
Once again, thank you to our youth representatives, Ashley Bach and Cheyenne Andy, accompanied by Holly Anderson.
(The committee adjourned.)