Reforming First Nations child welfare: Summary of engagement

From Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Minister's Special Representative
Submitted September 2017

The opinions and views set out in this independent report are those of Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, the Minister's Special Representative (MSR) on First Nations Child and Family Services Program Reform. They are not necessarily the opinions or views of the Government of Canada.

Table of contents


In the summer of 2016, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs appointed me as her special representative to engage with First Nations leadership, communities and youth, agencies and other service providers, and provinces/Yukon on how to reform the First Nations Child and Family Services program.

My appointment and the launching of a national engagement process in the fall of 2016 was done as part of the federal government's commitment to reconciliation and to the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the government's work to implement the January 2016 decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

As the Minister's Special Representative (MSR), my specific role was to:

The Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada considered it essential to engage First Nation youth, communities and their leadership to ensure Canada's approach to reform was done in full partnership with Indigenous peoples, and supported their vision of child, family and community well-being.

I have 37 years of experience in land claims and self-government negotiations as a vice-chief and assistant negotiator, personal and community development, cultural sensitivity training, individual and community healing and wellness, child and family historic and contemporary trauma, and mediation. I have also led community engagement on a variety of topics, and worked directly with chiefs and senior negotiators, lawyers and judges, directors and managers, and presidents of educational institutions.

I understand the historical context and complex circumstances generated over the past several hundred years as well as the detrimental effects these circumstances have had on Indigenous families and communities across Canada.

Throughout the process, I remained focused on the value of this engagement process and worked positively with First Nations to understand their longstanding issues with the current system, while also seeking to understand their thinking about future reform. Indigenous people across Canada strongly want the power to look after their own children and families, as they have for thousands of years on this continent before child welfare was introduced into their nations.

The engagement process generated an intensive dialogue with Indigenous leadership and Elders, provincial and territorial ministries, child advocates and representatives, youth and families, and child welfare agencies. Through this dialogue, I heard about wise practices and short- and long-term solutions to reforming the system. Meeting with these partners was not only necessary, it provided a wealth of knowledge about circumstances on the ground at the community level, current regional and other challenges, and innovative ideas about how to work in partnership to reform the First Nations Child and Family Services program.

An Elder, noted in his closing remarks: "We have to work together. We have to turn the page,  but it's really heavy, so we are going to need all of us to do it."

Background on the engagement process

I was responsible for holding meetings with youth, communities, leadership as well as agency and other service providers. I provided support and background information in advance of meetings, listened to participants describe their perspectives on what is required to change and reform the current First Nations Child and Family Services program across Canada.

I traveled across Canada. Scheduled regional visits included:

I spent 54 days travelling to meet with First Nation governments, each provincial government and territorial government's senior management and officials, and membership, Innu governments, child advocates, child representatives, Elders, Chiefs, delegated agencies and agency directors, youth, parents, involved family and community members.

In each engagement session, I explained why reforming First Nations child welfare is exceptionally important to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in regards to community healing and prevention, community empowerment, cultural and spiritual rejuvenation and nation to nation exchanges. I also explained that this engagement process represented an opportunity to fully clarify First Nations' vision and goals for how to support child and family well-being.

I pointed out to all engagement participants that "the strength of the Minister's position about how the child welfare system needs to change is directly related to the strength of your argument for reform."

A key message from the engagement sessions was, a call for decision-making to be redirected to First Nations leadership and governments, and that the focus of reform needs to be on healing and prevention. They also expressed a clear need for sufficient fiscal and human resources, and the need to build professional capacity in communities at the ground level.

Regarding protection services, participants confirmed that renewed trilateral engagement tables involving the federal government, province/Yukon and First Nations are best placed to discuss the issues around the funding required for and the role of delegated child and family service agencies.

"We are the knowledge keepers: an independent group of elders who can guide and support healing. We need to support, nourish and heal the spirit. We have to take our rightful roles and responsibility. The training and healing has to be done by our own people."

Key issues raised in the engagement process

Some of the key themes and issues raised include:

Key issues raised by youth

During the engagement process, I met with three youth organizations and many individual young people during community visits and engagement sessions.

Given the need to ensure the system is child-centred moving forward, it is important to specifically highlight some of the key issues raised by Indigenous youth in care or aged out of care. They included:

Children and youth also have concerns and a lack of understanding about why they were removed from their parents'/grandparents' homes in the first place. Many requested better communication from leadership, parents, social workers and agencies, specifically about:

Key elements to guide reform

The following four elements were repeatedly suggested as critical for the reform and sustainability of Indigenous child and family well-being:

  1. Restoration of jurisdiction and authority to First Nation communities across Canada:
    1. to restore balance to First Nation communities and enliven existing and future self-government agreements
    2. to ensure and respect the right of Indigenous peoples to make decisions regarding the care and well-being of their children, and restore dignity to Indigenous parents, families and communities
    3. to support Indigenous Nationhood and capacity building at every level
    4. to ensure language and culture are preserved and rejuvenated
  2. Fully flexible funding models incorporating the following possibilities:
    1. block or global funding: empowering the communities/nations to make their own decisions about fiscal matters across the board
    2. to ensure flexible decision making on how dollars are allocated to child and family well-being; with healing and prevention being a primary consideration
    3. to consider a two-pronged funding approach which allocates resources to agencies to continue protection work and directly to communities to do healing and prevention work; with percentages to be agreed upon at tables involving Indigenous leadership, provinces/Yukon and the federal government

    "We are going to draft legislation that addresses our authority over our own children."

  3. Development of national standards, policies, practices and laws that truly reflect the wise practices and living conditions, culture and traditions of Indigenous peoples across Canada and fully consider the need to:
    1. address and improve understanding and acceptance between ministries, agencies, children's aid societies, delegated Indigenous agencies, and First Nations to assist in the restoration of healthy child rearing practices and traditions
    2. explore national legislation and/or principles that accurately reflect the needs, values, and approaches of Indigenous peoples in regards to child and family well-being
    3. remove the distinctions between on and off reserve members,  "our members are our members no matter where they live"
    4. establish an Indigenous Ombudsperson for Child and Family Well-Being in Canada, or provincially as required
    5. establish a national collaborating centre on the rights and well-being of Indigenous children and youth
    6. develop curriculum which reflects historic and contemporary understandings of child and family well-being, including the impacts of trauma informed knowledge, inclusive of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the continuing scoop of babies and children from their homes and communities, while highlighting the importance of social justice policies and practices

    "We need to look at a constitutional framework that will address jurisdiction and ensure monies go to the First Nations and not to the province."

  4. Renewal of relationships between the Indigenous peoples of Canada, every provincial/Yukon ministry and the federal government:
    1. establish stronger and inclusive tri-partite working relationships with provinces/territories and First Nations to develop reform
    2. ensure the provinces/Yukon and federal government fully understand and accept Indigenous values, standards and future aspirations for Indigenous children, families and communities
    3. find ways of implementing and funding self-government agreements directly when child welfare is drawn down as a key jurisdictional responsibility; children are the core of any community, and jurisdiction and authority in this area is critical to the physical health, mental health and well-being of every single Indigenous person in Canada, the time is now to make this happen
    4. accepting there is a difference when it comes to Indigenous peoples and their needs and standards, policies and practices will vary when it comes to Indigenous diversity

"The provincial legislation prohibits our families from being a safe house or from stepping in: the criteria are crushing us. If someone would start believing in us; just let us do it! Nobody trusts us, we can do the job. They're our kids, not yours."

The development and implementation of these elements and those that follow must be placed firmly in the hands of Indigenous governments and their membership to enable them to directly address healing and prevention needs, understanding that "no one size will fit all" when it comes to returning jurisdiction and authority, full or partial, to Indigenous people for the care and control of child and family well-being.

Outcomes: Lessons learned

In addition to identifying elements that are needed to reshape the system to focus more on healing, prevention and well-being, I gathered some key lessons throughout the engagement process. These are outlined below.

  1. Indigenous mothers and fathers, youth and Elders remain willing to open up to questions and share their insights, even though they have been asked repeatedly to do this in the past. Each group was honest and direct about their personal experiences and concerns, and families are beyond ready to do the work necessary to protect and raise their own children, the interference must end.
  2. That said, simply sending more money to the delegated agencies and/or the ministries responsible for child and family services in the province/Yukon is not the sole answer to substantive and necessary reform; discussions are also required about how funds are directed.
  3. There is a need to further acknowledge where communities stand and what their underlying needs and expectations actually are when it comes to the care and raising of their children;  we must all trust each other to do what is needed.
  4. There is a need to acknowledge and respect the ability of each community to monitor and mitigate addictions, neglect and parental challenges in their own ways. They have known for a long time what needs to be done and giving them the proper resources to do it will ensure the healing of our nations is done properly and our children raised safely.
  5. First Nations communities have forged ahead in governance and the development of laws in a variety of areas, including child and family well-being. Their expertise needs to be trusted and funded accordingly.
  6. The issue of trust is an exceptionally large one and will take much to overcome. There have been many statements made about change that have never materialized, and this government has a responsibility to ensure this engagement process results in action and was not just about words.
  7. There is a need to have Indigenous voices woven throughout decision making processes. No more intrusive policies and practices will be accepted, especially in the case of child and family services reform.

"What I heard about cultural plans required by provinces – foster families take a child to an Indigenous festival and the province says they have met the standard for keeping the child connected to his/ her community and culture. Yet they will not let a child go to a funeral for their grandparent and connect with their families on a regular basis. Where is the fairness in this?"

Concluding thoughts and next steps

We agreed the unwarranted apprehension of First Nation children from their families has to stop, and that healing and prevention for children, families and communities must become a priority area of funding and support. We agreed there are times when removal is necessary and First Nations will respect the decisions of Indigenous leadership and the delegated agencies to determine to their best ability when this will happen. I repeatedly heard the standards and values of the children's aid societies and provincial/Yukon ministries are not the standards and values of First Nations peoples and must be changed to accommodate their values, beliefs, languages, spiritual practices and cultures.

The restoration of jurisdiction and authority, the correcting of national and provincial funding models, and new relationships with provincial and territorial ministries will correct what has been described as a broken system. The goal is to create a stronger focus on healing and prevention, where protection and apprehension are a last resort and the restoration of physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy Indigenous children, families and communities can occur across Canada.  This involves putting in place a national system with Indigenous models that truly reflects the ability and desire of Indigenous peoples to partner with federal, provincial and territorial governments and protect their own children.

There must be checks and balances put in place to ensure we continue to move forward and an Ombudsman or Indigenous Northern Child Advocate may be required to ensure changes are implemented. There are outstanding issues regarding jurisdiction between agencies (delegated or otherwise), and provincial and federal policies and practices which will also have to be resolved.

This summary of my key observations has been shared with the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. Summaries of each of my regional visits are posted online. Various participants requested that my notes and observations be shared with them, and that decision-making not move forward before there is further dialogue.

To this end, Minister Bennett is committed to continuing to work in partnership to develop the vision for reform. INAC's engagement process is continuing, including the gathering of more perspectives from communities, through tripartite and technical discussions in each region, and through the National Advisory Committee on First Nations Child and Family Services Program Reform.

The success of this project will be tied directly to the acceptance and acknowledgement of the Government of Canada and provincial/Yukon governments that Indigenous peoples have the right to care for and raise their own children. This report and the many that have preceded it have been calls to begin shifting jurisdiction and authority to First Nation governments, to revise funding agreements to reflect the needs and aspirations of Indigenous peoples, and to implement standards, policies and practices that highlight and acknowledge Indigenous history, traditional knowledge, expertise as well as the experience of Indigenous parents, Elders, and leadership. This reform will take place in stages and over time.

"This is a time for progress. We must stand together and reconcile title and treaty rights, health and ensure our children are safe, and our women. We are working towards creating a better quality of life for our families and we need to collaborate with government, but, we need to be guided by our own ancestors, values and cultures."

In closing, the conversations I had across the country were exceptionally fruitful and inspiring. The opportunity to speak to a variety of participants who offered their thoughts and suggestions, even after already being asked multiple times to do so in the past, was deeply appreciated. The experience of travelling across the country with a federal team of dedicated individuals, witnessing the pain of parents and grandparents, the tears and frustration of children and youth, and knowing how challenging it will be to reform a system that has grown as large as child welfare has become, was completely humbling and deeply inspiring. 

There is so much more that could be said, but in the interests of brevity and to ensure the Minister understands the four key elements identified for reform are paramount in continuing discussions, I have kept things concise.

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