Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation’s (NCN) innovative approaches to child welfare and reducing the number of babies affected with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) impressed Manitoba Liberal party leader Dougald Lamont and Liberal River Heights MLA Jon Gerrard during a recent trip Jan. 21-22.
“They’ve done some really interesting and important work reducing the number of kids in care, reducing the number of kids born with FASD,” said Lamont. “They’re rightfully proud about all the work they’re doing. We want to be able to share that with other people, to say there’s incredible work being done here.”
Lamont says one of the innovative approaches NCN has taken, which has been noted before, is removing adults from homes where children aren’t safe instead of the children themselves.
“They’ve reduced the number of kids in care by two-thirds,” Lamont said. “It’s absolutely critical that we do a better job than we have been dong of taking care of kids. Some of it is about doing a better job supporting families so kids don’t end up in the care of CFS [Child and Family Services] at all.”
The way the provincial government funds child welfare services is also a problem, said the Liberal leader, since funding is based on the number of children in care the previous year, which can change substantially.
“You do want reality-based budgeting,” Lamont said.
Gerrard, a former Liberal leader who has been making yearly visits to Northern Manitoba for many years, says NCN’s participation in the economy of Thompson deserves recognition.
“They’ve become really a part of the Thompson community, investing in here and supporting and working with people here in Thompson and I think that’s a really positive development.”
He also said that the ownership model of the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill should point the way for other enterprises.
“It’s being solved by people in First Nations and non-First Nations communities getting together, having some help from the federal government, building some partnerships with companies in Saskatchewan and Ontario and I’m hopeful that that might give us some long-run better outlook for Churchill plus stability in that line,” Gerrard said. “It’s people in the north taking a leadership role.”
Both Liberal MLAs say the province needs to do better addressing crime and justice, problems that affected Manitoba and the north under the previous NDP government as well.
“I cannot understand what this government is doing with justice and it’s across the board. It’s been completely ignoring soaring crime, in Winnipeg, outside of Winnipeg. St. Boniface, which I represent, has seen a 300 per cent increase in property crime,” said Lamont, noting that 2019 was the worst year ever for murders in Winnipeg. “I know it’s been bad in Thompson as well. There’s something really wrong with the way this government is dealing with justice. Normally PCs are all about being tough on crime but they’ve really just been trying to avoid the issue entirely. Thompson is the Hub of the North, there should be justice processes that’ll work here and it’s not happening. It’s breaking down. It’s costly, it ruins people’s lives and it’s urgent. This is not an issue that’s going to go away on its own. The provincial government has to act but they don’t seem to be interested.”
Gerrard said innovative solutions are needed.
“When we were in Nelson House, they were talking about some justice initiatives they’re looking at taking there to address some of the minor crimes and do that using traditional First Nations approaches,” he said.
Long waits for bail hearings in the north are a big problem, says Gerrard.
“This is not treating people fairly, it’s not treating people justly,” he said. “It’s not acceptable that you don’t have a justice system which works fairly for people.”
“You’ll end up getting people who could end being convicted and going to jail because they don’t have adequate counsel,” says Lamont.
A general problem in Manitoba, according to the Liberal leader, is that governments wait until things get really bad before taking action.
“Both the NDP and the PCs have always been willing to let things get to a crisis level before they intervene,” he says.
Lamont also says the problems seen in Winnipeg usually exist outside of the province’s biggest city as well, but that solutions can be found there too.
“A lot of the lessons I’ve learned about where the Manitoba government doesn’t work, it’s drawn from rural Manitoba, from the north, from people who deserve better, especially for the taxes they pay,” he said.