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Manitoba First Nations and Métis leadership took the provincial government to task Tuesday, saying Division 8 in the recently introduced budget (Bill 34) would strip the rights of children in care.
At issue is the Children’s Special Allowance for individual children, as well as the right to recuperate that money in court.
"It’s the same benefit every other child gets," said lawyer Sonny Cochrane, who also took part in the video news conference Tuesday, adding that these funds — equivalent to the Canada child benefit — are not going where they are intended to and that Division 8 is supporting this action by disallowing future litigation related to the practice.
"In our view, (Premier Brian Pallister) is balancing the provincial books on the backs of these children; vulnerable children. He’s getting federal transfer payments, but he’s also taking the federal CSA (Children’s Special Allowance) payments from these children," Cochrane said.
Federal legislation states the special allowance "shall be applied exclusively toward the care, maintenance, education, training or advancement of the child in respect of whom it is paid."
The monthly amount for a child under the age of six is $541.33, and for a child of age six to 17 is $456.75.
"The province said, because we fund you for child maintenance and you are receiving this child benefit from Canada, we think that is double funding on your part, so we’re going to take that money from you," Cochrane said. "(Pallister is) using payments for Indigenous children as a source of revenue for the province."
Cochrane added the province has clawed back an estimated $250 million since the practice was put in place in 2010.
Manitoba Metis Federation President David Chartrand said that amounts to $7.7 million annually for Métis agencies.
In April 2019, the government shifted course, saying it would no longer claw back the special allowance, and introduced a new funding formula for agencies. But Chartrand, along with Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization and Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said the new funding formula penalizes family services agencies by the same amount as the special allowance.
Along with disallowing future litigation, Division 8 also states "Any action or proceeding ... commenced before the day this section comes into force is deemed to have been dismissed, without costs, on the day this section comes into force," citing two cases.
The first case, filed by Cochrane in 2018, is on behalf of Peguis Child and Family Services, Animikii Ozoson Child and Family Services, Southeast Child and Family Services, Sandy Bay Child and Family Services, Michif Child and Family Services and Metis Child, Family and Community Services.
The parties are seeking an order from the court for the province to cease the practice of clawing back the Children’s Special Allowance by any method.
The second case is a class-action lawsuit to recuperate the estimated $250 million for children formerly and currently in care, which disproportionately affects Indigenous children since of the approximately 10,000 to 11,000 children in care in the province, 80 to 90 per cent are Indigenous.
"Our government is very appalled by what is happening, and why would you do it during the COVID crisis?" Chartrand said.
"When people are scared, they (the government) are trying to sneak in a bill of this nature, to actually rob and steal against children. Even those yet to be born."
Settee called the government’s actions "an atrocity committed at the highest level." Bill 34, as written with Division 8, he said, re-victimizes the most vulnerable in society.
"It is unethical. It is immoral," Settee said. "There’s no transparency. There’s no consultation."
Daniels said Pallister has pulled the wool over Manitobans’ eyes.
"They’re creating law to legitimize the process," he said.
"That money should have been utilized to help those children. It should have been invested in their futures."
Earlier this month the three leaders wrote a letter to Pallister. They asked Pallister to remove Division 8 from the bill. They have not received a reply.
The three leaders also recently wrote federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
Chartrand said they would pursue the matter at the Supreme Court of Canada if need be.
"We will protect the children come hell or high water," he said.
As for the Manitoba NDP, it’s no longer on board with the practice they once supported.
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the matter affects all of society.
"So you could have a kid who’s super-vulnerable, maybe they’re coming out of a very difficult life experience. You want to give that kid a good education. You want them to be able to play hockey on the weekends. You want them to be able to get a tutor if they needed it. This money would’ve helped them with the hockey fees, with the tutor fees," Kinew said.
"And because it (the funding) wasn’t provided to them, they didn’t get it. Now, maybe their life is worse because they weren’t able to participate in sports or academics the same way. Now all of us as Manitobans have to contend with the issues that that creates for our society. Whereas if this money had been actually going to the kids and to the people caring for the kids, then maybe those kids would have been way better off in the first place and we would have all benefited."
Kinew said his party will try to get the government to back off the bill, or at least change Division 8 so that the issue can be dealt with by a judge.
"We’re probably going to bring an amendment forward to take this piece out, then the rest of the budget could pass," Kinew said.
Pallister’s office did not reply to The Brandon Sun’s questions by deadline on Tuesday.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.
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Updated on Wednesday, April 15, 2020 at 10:39 AM CDT: A previous version of this story's headline had mistakenly separated "Indigenous" and "Métis" as different entities, even though the word Indigenous encompasses all First Nation, Inuit, and Métis people. The headline has been changed to reflect this.