Quebec challenges federal child welfare law to the ‘detriment of First Nations children’ says chief

The regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations is scolding the province of Quebec for challenging the federal law that will reform First Nations child welfare across the country.

“I am extremely disappointed, but not surprised, by what I call the shameful decision of the Legault government,” Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador said in a statement.

“Defending its so-called jurisdiction is one thing, but doing it on the backs of our children is another. This is totally unacceptable,” he added. T”he Legault government is well aware that the current child welfare system does not work for First Nations children.”

Just two weeks before it is scheduled to take effect Canada-wide, the province of Quebec is asking its Court of Appeal to assess the constitutionality of the child welfare bill known as C-92.

Quebec is the first province to legally challenge the largest overhaul of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis child welfare system in the country’s history.

C-92 is set to come into effect as of January 1, 2020.

On Thursday, Quebec Justice Minister Sonia LeBel stated that the parameters set for C-92 “exceeds the powers of the Parliament of Canada under the Canadian Constitution.”

“The government of Quebec intends to defend its powers and its autonomy under the constitutional framework and wishes to maintain the full application of Quebec laws – including the Youth Protection Act – on its territory,” LeBel said in a statement.

The referral to the Court of Appeal, she says “will clarify the state of the law” as far as the “scope of federal jurisdiction.”

Quebec believes that C-92 appropriates the “exclusive” jurisdiction of the provinces in matters of social services.

The implementation of the law also risks causing serious difficulties with regard to the organization of these services, LeBel and D’Amours said.

But Picard doesn’t see it that way.

“The provincial superiority complex persists and threatens to severely compromise services to our children and our families, as well as the relationship between the province and First Nations,” Picard said.

“This pride, this feeling of superiority of the province towards the First Nations has a name: colonialism. It is a real shame.”

But according to provincial officials, this legal challenge doesn’t mean the government isn’t on board with C-92 – which was officially introduced in June – according to Indigenous Affairs minister Sylvie d’Amours.

Along with Health Minister Danielle McCann, d’Amours was mandated to develop a concrete strategy to address systemic imbalances; it has yet to be unveiled.

For her part, D’Amours said Quebec hopes Indigenous people will “exercise greater autonomy in matters of youth protection,” but that they will ultimately do so “in harmony with the Quebec regime,” according to a press release.

“This commitment will not be compromised,” D’Amours wrote. “When it comes to children’s wellbeing, safety, and quality of life, we need to take the time to do it right – together.”

The Court of Appeal has not yet responded to Quebec’s request.

Canada was forced to draw up legislation after a ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found Ottawa guilty of discriminating against First Nations children on reserve involved in the child welfare system.

While it has support, the main criticism has been that there is no money attached to helping pay for any changes the bill will make in communities and the agencies that serve them.

But a number of frontline organizations agree that change is needed.

In Quebec, a series of reports released in 2019 detailed the shortcomings, discrimination, and systemic instability plaguing the system currently in place in the province.

In November, a report issued by the province’s auditor general found that Quebec’s youth protection system is “deeply flawed,” with over 289 cases brought to child welfare agencies every day – a 27 per cent jump since an initial survey completed in 2013.

A child welfare inquiry, dubbed The Laurent Commission, began after a seven year old girl – a child known to the system – died under troubling circumstances in Granby earlier this year.

Following a series of public consultations, stakeholders are expected to make a series of recommendations by November 2020.

That said, Indigenous activists conducting their own data collection also raised alarms about service gaps where child welfare is concerned.

A collaborative report released in October, aptly titled One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, documented a cycle of child apprehension and placement in non-Indigenous foster homes.

At the time, frontline workers like Alana Phillips, executive director of Rising Sun, an Indigenous-specific daycare in Montreal, explained that questioning methods of child apprehension through Batshaw, the city’s English child welfare centre, yielded “very negative and stressful interactions” between parties.

“Decolonizing Montreal’s colonial child welfare system means delivering culturally grounded, prevention-focused child and family services to Indigenous families,” the report reads.

“Indigenous self-determination as it relates to Indigenous children and their families and communities is how we are proceeding, and we expect the CIUSSS-ODIM to begin working immediately with established working committees and organizations that represent and are represented by Indigenous peoples living in Montreal,” it concluded.

Starting in January in Montreal, Quebec’s Health Ministry will hold public hearings and consultations where interested parties and survivors of the child welfare system can outline their concerns ahead of the Laurent Commission’s November deadline; a “historic moment” to improve the support system for vulnerable children, according to Health and Social Services Minister Lionel Carmant.

“I encourage the speakers to come and share their experience and make their voices heard – their duty of loyalty is, above all, to children,” Carmant explained.

But for Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and professor at McGill University in Montreal, said the news is “disappointing.”

“It’s disappointing First Nations jurisdiction isn’t recognized,” she said when contacted by APTN News. “One of the things that I’m hoping for is that First Nation jurisdiction is eventually recognized by the courts, and that includes adequate funding for the jurisdiction.”

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller was handed the expansive child welfare portfolio when appointed to his new position in early November following the federal election.

Aside from overseeing “fair and equitable” compensation for children apprehended by youth protection on-reserve, Miller said – regarding the appeal of Bill C-92 – that the Federal government  will let the process “unfold as it will.”

“My focus and the focus of people across Québec and Canada is on the well-being of Indigenous children in the child and family services system,” Miller told APTN. “Remember that Indigenous children make up 7.7% of children under 15 years old across the country, but 52% of children in care of child and family services.”

“This must change,” he added.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.