07/10/2019 08:59 EDT

AFN Chief Calls 40,000 Indigenous Children In Care A Human Rights Issue

Perry Bellegarde wants First Nations at the table with premiers.

BIG RIVER FIRST NATION, Sask. — The head of the Assembly of First Nations had a receptive audience with most of Canada’s premiers Tuesday over the need to implement changes to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got 40,000 children in care and we know that’s not acceptable,” National Chief Perry Bellegarde said after a day-long meeting Tuesday with premiers at Big River First Nation, north of Saskatoon.

“It’s a human rights issue and we need to fix that and you can only do that by working together.”

Bill C-92, which was just passed in last session, clarifies the jurisdiction of Indigenous people over family and social services in their communities.

Bellegarde said he believes the premiers got the message and are committed to working toward better child welfare.

“There was a good nodding of heads around the table,” he said. “That was one issue that the premiers said they wanted to work on together back in 2016 and I’m going to continue encouraging that.”

The event marked the first time provincial and territorial leaders met as a group on First Nations land. Bellegarde had also been boycotting premiers’ meetings since 2017, as Indigenous leaders have historically been kept out of those discussions.

The premiers arrived by helicopter at the First Nation and were greeted with handshakes from various Indigenous leaders.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford did not attend the meeting and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs was the only premier in attendance from Atlantic Canada. However, the missing premiers did send representatives.

Bellegarde said it was good to meet with the premiers on an informal basis a day before they are to attend a two-day annual meeting of the Council of the Federation in Saskatoon. He hopes to be invited to those discussions someday.

“You need Indigenous people’s voices at all of those decision making tables,” Bellegarde said. “I’m going to keep pushing for that.”

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said turning over child care jurisdiction with First Nations communities across Canada won’t be easy and there needs to be a plan.

“How do we move forward and what are the next steps in moving forward ... to keep focused on the children that this legislation was formed to ultimately protect?” he asked.

“We need to work harder as provincial leaders and engage ... as we ultimately remain focused on the well-being of the children.”

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, left, shakes hands with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde as Big River First Nation Chief Bruce Morin watches Tuesday in Big River First Nation, Sask.

Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters before the meeting he was glad that Bellegarde ended his boycott.

“I think it’s important because we want to listen to him and to the First Nations — as many groups as possible. We know it’s a kind of three-way negotiation between the federal government, the province and the First Nations. So it’s never easy,” said Legault.

“We know we have to make improvements regarding services ... educational services, health-care services,” he added.

“So I’m very happy that he’s here.”