Indigenous child welfare rights would override provincial, federal law: minister

“The law doesn’t make those rights, but they are already there"

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed speaks on Friday, Nov. 30, at an announcement in the foyer of Parliament about the proposed child and family legislation that the Trudeau government plans to introduce early in 2019. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ITK)

By JANE GEORGE

Inuit birthright organizations may be on the cusp of transforming into Inuit “governments,” whose right to make laws and develop programs would “prevail over both federal and provincial law.”

That’s suggested by language used in the Nov. 30 announcement in Ottawa about the child and family legislation that the Trudeau government plans to introduce early next year, and by the comments of federal and Inuit leaders who are boosting the bill.

Jane Philpott, the minister of Indigenous Services, referred several times to Inuit governments, both during the announcement and later in a teleconference discussion, along with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed.

Philpott said the rights of First Nations, Métis and Inuit are already laid out in international law and constitutional law and treaties, which say Indigenous people have the right to make their own laws, policies and programs.

“The law doesn’t make those rights, but they are already there,” she said.

And when an Indigenous government wants to exercise those rights, and have their own laws, these “would in fact prevail over both federal and provincial laws and this is a piece of legislation that points in this direction,” Philpott said during the call.

That push to exercising more self-government is something that Makivik Corp. and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the birthright organizations in Nunavik and Nunavut, have said they want to explore, with NTI resolving at its recent annual general meeting that the organization lead a process “to examine the possibility of Inuit self-government in Nunavut.”

Obed also said he sees the proposed child and family legislation as an assertion of rights that Inuit already possess.

While it doesn’t look like ITK intends to deliver child and family services, ITK and the other Inuit governments (usually still referred to as Inuit birthright organizations) would establish partnerships, exert control and set priorities on the specific funding envelopes “to ensure our rights are upheld,” said Obed.

Obed told Nunatsiaq News the legislation represents a step toward deconstructing the colonial structures that he said have left Inuit feeling that they have no rights.

“A lot of Inuit children grow up without connections to their communities, their culture and their language or society,” Obed said in the interview, which took place shortly after participating in the announcement in the foyer of the Parliament building with Philpott, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Métis National Council President Clément Chartier.

“We are attempting to deconstruct that oppressive system and replace it with what we heard from Inuit, from communities for a long, long time: ‘Believe in us, believe in our culture, listen to us about what we want for our children and how to care for our children.’”

While they revealed no details of the legislation, Obed described the legislation as a “collective, holistic” group of interventions that will “change the way in which we care for our most vulnerable.”

Overall, it will favour prevention over the apprehension of Inuit, First Nations and Métis children and their placement into the youth protection system, often into non-Indigenous families or outside Indigenous communities.

Poverty isn’t a reason to take Inuit children away from their parents, Obed said.

“If we are in trouble, if we have trouble caring for our children or our families … let’s work on that and not take over the children and say that they’re going to grow up in another society because Inuit society is not good enough for them,” Obed said during the teleconference.

Philpott told Nunatsiaq News that she wants to move ahead with the legislation after hearing from Indigenous women who had had “multiple babies apprehended from them, of their fights to get their babies back, of the terrible things that happened, not just to their children, but to the families they left behind.”

“I have been quite obsessed with trying to find ways that we can transform this together with our partners. This is about family unity. This is about the rights of children and families, about ensuring that Indigenous children can grow up in their culture, hearing and learning their language and supported by their extended family.

Asked whether she expects to gain support for this legislation, Philpott said she hoped there would not be strong opposition or “that people will play partisan games with this.”

“There is nothing more important than restoring the strong bonds of family for First Nations, Inuit and Métis in the country,” she said.

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