Manitoba is introducing legislation it says will help Indigenous governments take control of child welfare in their communities.
The new legislation will hand over information held by child and family service agencies to Indigenous governments and service providers who choose to exercise legislative authority over their children in care.
The information exchanged includes details of children and families receiving services, as well as personal health information and access to the child abuse registry.
The legislation also transfers care supervision and guardianship of children in care to Indigenous service providers.
Families Minister Rochelle Squires said Manitoba is transforming the child welfare system “in the spirit of reconciliation.”
The province adheres to the federal legislation of Bill C-92, which gives First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities the power to take charge of child welfare. The law was passed in 2019.
“They have jurisdiction,” Squires said of Indigenous governing bodies, “but they also need our information, the information that we have kept: historical records, access to the child’s medical history if that’s the case, access to information about community members.
“It just sets the legislative framework so that they can easily and transparently receive information about the families over which they have jurisdiction.”
Earlier this year, Peguis First Nation became the first Indigenous group in Manitoba to take back responsibility for child welfare.
Under current laws, Squires said Peguis would have to take legal action to get records on their children. She said new legislation would change that.
“We don’t want to have to go through a court order to be able to facilitate a transfer of information.”
Cora Morgan, First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said ceding control doesn’t make up for “over 150 years of stolen children.”
“Now that our nations have the ability to reassert jurisdiction, they are taking a lot of damage from governments before,” Morgan said, citing residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and the use of sanatoriums as examples.
“Now we have the opportunity to do things our way, or closer to our way, after all of this. It’s hard and it won’t be easy.”
Squires said 17 Indigenous communities in Manitoba are pursuing coordination agreements with provincial and federal governments regarding child welfare.
Twelve months after the request, the laws of the Aboriginal group and community will come into force and will prevail over all other laws, regardless of whether a coordination agreement has been concluded.
Although Manitoba may lose its authority over child welfare, Morgan hopes the province will find appropriate funding to ensure children under its authority are properly cared for.
Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias bristled at the fact that the provincial government had authority over child welfare information in the first place.
“I think they should relinquish control and management of that data, because they’re just granting access, not giving us full access,” he said.
“They should come to the table ready to listen to us, to listen to our wishes.”
He added that some indigenous governing bodies feel pressured into making coordination agreements, when they prefer to go it alone.