OTTAWA — The next federal budget will include more money for First Nations child welfare services on reserves, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said Wednesday — but she stopped short of saying how much.
The Liberal government is keen to fix the "funding gap" in the resources available to Indigenous children as compared to non-Indigenous kids, Philpott said Wednesday as she spoke to chiefs at a special meeting convened by the Assembly of First Nations.
She referenced the Liberal government's Budget 2016 allocation of $635 million for child welfare supports before acknowledging that the Liberals have since been called out repeatedly, including on human rights grounds, for not doing enough.
"You and other partners, as well as the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, have highlighted that more must be done," she told Indigenous leaders. "You have noted the gap between the resources provided for child welfare for Indigenous children and non-Indigenous children.
"We will work with relevant partners in the coming months to define the policy and funding needed to address this gap, and include it in Budget 2018."
Details, however, were not forthcoming. Philpott said later she still needs to discuss precise funding levels with Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Outstanding concerns about chronic underfunding of First Nations child welfare services has been at the centre of a protracted legal battle at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which issued multiple rulings urging the government to make more resources available.
Philpott also cited the government's decision last week to withdraw its bid for a Federal Court review of a case focused on Jordan's Principle, a policy named after a special-needs First Nations child who died in 2005 in the midst of a jurisdictional squabble between Ottawa and the Manitoba government.
However, it will take more than money to solve the child welfare crisis, she added.
"A systemic problem of this magnitude calls for systemic reform," Philpott said. "Reform must focus on prevention: on keeping children in their families and communities, and returning children who are currently in care."
Both the AFN and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society want the federal government to earmark more money for the problem, pointing to a unanimous motion passed last month in the Commons calling for an immediate $155-million cash infusion.
Caring Society executive director Cindy Blackstock, who has been lobbying various governments on the child welfare issue for more than a decade, said the effectiveness of whatever action the government ends up taking will have to be measured at the grassroots level in terms of its impact on kids.
She did acknowledge, however, a "significant change" since Philpott took on the Indigenous Services portfolio.
"There's been much more openness to discussion," Blackstock said. "I definitely see a difference in tone, and now I want to see differences in children's lives."
The federal government has said it plans to hold an emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare in January.
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press