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Inquiry on premiers' agenda

Child welfare key issue, too

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files
Tina Fontaine�s photograph sits on top of her casket during her funeral last Saturday.

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files Tina Fontaine�s photograph sits on top of her casket during her funeral last Saturday.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger will lead talks among the nation's premiers this week on the overrepresentation of First Nations children in the child-welfare system.

Greg Selinger

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Greg Selinger

Canada's premiers, meeting in Charlottetown today through Friday for their annual conference, will also discuss the need for a national inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. The premiers backed such an inquiry last year and are expected to renew their call following the Aug. 17 discovery of Tina Fontaine's body in the Red River.

Selinger said the two issues, although separate, are still closely connected and must be addressed on the national stage.

"They have underlying similarities," he said. "They're the result of our colonial heritage, the loss of language and culture and the displacement of children through residential schools and the '60's scoop, where so many children were adopted outside the communities and lost connections with their families.

"This has resulted in some of the problems we're seeing today of people being on the street and the challenges some families have struggling to look after each other."

The issue of child welfare was driven by the 91-day inquiry into the 2005 murder of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair by her mother and stepfather and the failure of the province's child-welfare system to protect her.

Commissioner Ted Hughes submitted 62 recommendations to improve the child-welfare system, among them asking Selinger to address the matter nationally among his counterparts.

Selinger said the goal is to come out of the meeting with a joint working group to prepare an action plan to take across the country.

Hughes said in an interview his wish is for Manitoba to take a lead role on the issue with the involvement of aboriginal leaders. Hughes also said he believes there is a direct link between the overrepresentation of First Nations children in the child-welfare system and murdered and missing aboriginal women.

"It's traceable to the same underlying features that have caused the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in our jails, the suicide rate, inadequate housing and substance abuse," Hughes said. "My hope would be that the action plan the premier proposes to the meeting would be widened to look at all of those underlying problems. "I just think it's a real opportunity to take hold of this problem that the fathers of Confederation didn't get right 150 years ago. A lot of today's problems were introduced at that time."

Selinger said even before the meeting in Prince Edward Island, he is getting support from other premiers, including B.C. Premier Christy Clark. In Manitoba, about 80 per cent of children in care are aboriginal and nearly half of those under 14 in foster care in Canada are aboriginal children.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has so far dismissed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, calling Fontaine's slaying first and foremost a crime. Fontaine's body was recovered wrapped in a bag.

Hughes said while he appreciates Harper's position, there is still an opportunity for the federal government to become involved in a wider effort.

"He hasn't said that he won't participate in an action plan that is out to solve once and for all this long-standing problem that has troubled this country all these years," Hughes said.

Selinger said a national inquiry and addressing child-welfare issues focus the issues of helping disenfranchised First Nations people and working toward preventing deaths such as Fontaine's.

"It's about how we respond as Canadians to these situations and find ways to prevent these tragedies," Selinger said. "That would be to the most benefit for all of us and quite frankly, it's more cost-effective approach to prevention.

He also said the premiers will discuss the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. He said the federal government is heading into surplus, in part by cutting transfer payments to provinces for health care and social services. "The federal government has made a lot of unilateral decisions to health care with respect to transfers," he said. "This puts a lot of pressure on the provinces and territories at the same time as the population continues to age."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

 

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