Funding, follow-up, and transparency: these are just three of the concerns outlined by First Nations stakeholders this week during the first public consultations on the “Baby’s Law” recently tabled in Quebec.
Although presented to the public by Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere in December 2020, the Bill has yet to be officially adopted in the province’s National Assembly.
Bill 79 is known in shorthand as the “Baby’s Law,” but according to its full government title, its purpose is to “authorize the communication of personal information to the families of Indigenous children who went missing or died after being admitted to an institution.”
From the 1950s to the 1980s – and perhaps beyond – at least 45 children born to Atikamekw, Anishinaabe, and Innu families in Quebec disappeared or died in unclear circumstances after they were hospitalized outside of their home communities.
In the Atikamekw Nation, they’re known as “ghost babies.” Without definitive answers from institutions involved, Constant Awashish, grand chief of the Atikamekw National Council, says the families implicated are unable to fully heal.
“Even today, there are people who almost make themselves sick because they don’t know what’s real, they don’t know the truth of what really happened to their children,” Awashish said during Bill 79’s public hearings on Tuesday.
“There’s a slight improvement in the bill [Quebec] is proposing, but there are certain aspects of it that can go deeper.”
Calls for Justice 20 and 21 in the Quebec-specific report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) asserted the need to release hospital records to these affected families, as well as the need for an investigative commission.
In response, Bill 79 promises direct government support for families trying to obtain information about their relatives’ hospitalization.
It gives Lafreniere the power to investigate if an institution is believed to be withholding information, or to “assist and guide” families who are looking to exhume a loved one’s body for identification purposes.
Families would also be given the right to file a complaint with the ministry if they’re dissatisfied with services received while trying to search for information.
However, those who spoke during virtual consultation hearings on Tuesday criticized the bill for being unspecific about how this process would play out in real-time.
“Will this support take form as concrete, annual financing? As technical support?” Universite Laval law professor Genevieve Motard asked aloud.
“Will there be support, for example, in translation? Overall, it’s important supports are made clear – especially in terms of whether they’ll be effective, efficient, and respect the families’ right to know the truth.”
Former MMIWG commissioner Michele Audette told Quebec ministers that oftentimes, the institutions being scrutinized refuse to play ball with the public.
“Obviously there is racism in the systems. There have been moves to slow down the process when we request documents,” Audette explained. “I’m not an expert in the area, but this struck me. Whether it’s intentionally done or not, we have to be conscious of these barriers.”
One hint about funding for Bill 79’s promised actions can be taken from the 2021 Quebec budget.
When it was tabled last week, it included $2 million over two years to “set up a support team” at Indigenous Affairs, and “allow culturally adapted support” for families.
“This assistance will allow culturally adapted support to be provided to families, refer these families for access to psychological help, and assist them regarding the procedures to follow to obtain information about their missing child,” reads a passage in the 500-page budget document.
Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador Ghislain Picard, however, told APTN News he’s concerned the amount allocated will not stretch well.
“It’s not a lot of money,” Picard said. “We’ve always insisted on the fact that families will need to be supported – not only administratively, but psychologically as well. Is that where this money is going to be coming from?
“In that case, it’s not enough.”
Last year, Quebec pledged $200 million over five years to implement the findings of both the MMIWG and Viens Commission final reports.
The 2021 budget – which projects a seven-year financial deficit for the province – included nominal increases in specific funding for Indigenous issues like education and social housing.
Shortly after the 2021 budget was presented, APTN asked Lafreniere whether he thought the amount allocated was enough to continue implementing the two reports’ Calls to Action for the next four years.
“I’m not doing statistics,” he said in response. “What I mean is that I’m not trying to put a check in a box by saying ‘I’ve got 50 calls to action addressed.’ Because for some people, that 51st one, or the 52nd one will be so important for them.
“I hate numbers. I’m working to change the lives of people.”
Consultations on the “Baby’s Law” are expected to continue until Thursday.