Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Premiers face pressure to help aboriginal kids

Ted Hughes calls for action, not further study, on underlying problems that lead to a high rate of first nations children being taken from their parents

By Rob Shaw, Vancouver Sun

VICTORIA — Canada’s premiers will attempt this week to tackle the unacceptably high rate of aboriginal kids in government care.

 

The issue is on the agenda largely due to Ted Hughes, a former B.C. judge and the architect of B.C.’s child welfare system. He persuaded Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger to champion the issue at the Council of the Federation meeting that starts Wednesday in Charlottetown.

The over-representation of First Nations children in care will also be discussed with First Nations leaders during separate meetings, said Selinger.

“My view is we should come out with a joint working group that will prepare an action plan that we can recommend and implement across the country,” Selinger said in an interview with The Vancouver Sun.

Selinger agreed with Hughes, who has argued provincial and federal governments need to act, and not launch more studies or inquiries.

“We’ve got to focus on action,” said Selinger. “There’s things that have been done, money invested in prevention, but there’s just too many children in care. We have to find more ways, and more resolve and determination, and more partnerships, to ensure our children can be in their communities, and their families can be supported to care for them.”

B.C. Premier Christy Clark also supports the discussion, after a meeting with Hughes, who has headed several high-profile public inquiries into child deaths.

“She agreed she’d give it her full support,” Hughes said. “I’m optimistic to think maybe finally after all these years something is going to happen.”

More than 80 per cent of children in care in Manitoba are aboriginal. The trend extends across Canada. In B.C., only 5.4 per cent of the population is aboriginal but aboriginal children account for 53 per cent of kids in government care.

The discussion by premiers occurs against a backdrop of recent high-profile child murders in Manitoba. Winnipeg police are investigating the killing of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old aboriginal girl who fled a foster home early this month and whose body was found wrapped in a bag and dumped in the Red River.

The Manitoba government also pledged action earlier this year after Hughes concluded a public inquiry into the murder of a five-year-old First Nations girl, Phoenix Sinclair. She killed by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend in 2006 after a period of prolonged abuse. Hughes made 62 recommendations to help fix Manitoba’s child welfare system.

Selinger admitted the two murders have spurred action and “people are very concerned” about the issue.

In B.C., the 2002 death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie at the hands of a violent uncle in Port Alberni sparked a full review of the child welfare system by Hughes and the creation of an independent watchdog, the representative for children and youth.

Charlie had been placed in her uncle’s care by the government, under a rushed new policy of placing kids taken into care with relatives or friends.

Hughes has called the high number of aboriginal kids in government care “unconscionable” and a “national embarrassment” that requires action by provincial, federal and First Nations leaders.

“I’m sort of a lone voice in having said that I don’t think another inquiry is the solution, but rather it’s time for an action plan to deal with those underlying factors of poverty, substance abuse, inadequate housing and social exclusion, which is a big factor which results from those issues,” said Hughes. “All of which go back to the policies of colonization.”

Solution will require federal involvement given its responsibility for First Nations reserves and treaties, but Ottawa’s level of interest remains unclear.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters Thursday that he won’t call a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women because the deaths are usually the result of criminal activity and not a “sociological phenomenon.”

Many of the chiefs from B.C.’s more than 200 First Nation communities will meet with Premier Clark and her cabinet next month in Vancouver. Though the agenda is expected to be dominated by discussion of the recent Supreme Court of Canada land title ruling in favour of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, Hughes said it’s also a good opportunity for chiefs and government to discuss action on the children-in-care issue.

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