The new child act is ready to go, and if Yukon First Nations don’t like it, they can create their own, says Premier Dennis Fentie.
“The government has gone the distance and should any First Nation government want to go beyond where (the new Yukon Child and Family Services Act) takes us today, they have that right to occupy the authority as negotiated in their agreements,” he said during question period on Thursday.
Normally, the gallery is empty. But Thursday, it was standing-room only.
More than 60 people, mostly First Nations, packed the legislative assembly.
The child act was up for debate and Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill, its legal counsel Daryn Leas, Ta’an Chief Ruth Massie and Corrine McKay, legal counsel to Carcross/Tagish, Kluane, Kwanlin Dun, Liard and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations wanted to participate as witnesses.
(The last bill debated, the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Act, saw two witnesses present during debate — workers’ compensation chair and Yukon Party campaign manager Craig Tuton and workers’ compensation president and CEO Valerie Royle.)
But the Yukon Party bench voted against having witnesses present during the child act debate, defeating a motion forwarded by both opposition parties.
“It’s apparent with the vote in the house today there is no consideration for First Nations — our partnership is severely affected,” said Massie.
“There is a total, total lack of respect and it was demonstrated very explicitly today.”
“I was a little shocked when the motion got put on the floor to allow First Nation leaders and their legal counsel to come forward as witnesses; it got voted down,” said Carvill outside the legislature.
“We hear so much about working jointly, but they showed there is no real co-operation on working together.
“Other acts came forward, like WCB, (where people) were able to make a presentation,” he added.
There are huge issues with the bill, said Carvill, citing the discretionary power of the director and lack of First Nations’ involvement.
The new act has some accountability measures, said McKay.
“But the devil is always in the details.”
Most of these accountability measures start with “may,” not “shall,” she said.
“For instance, ‘the director may establish an advisory committee.’ It’s not mandatory.
“So you could have someone saying this is a great bill, it has co-operative planning, there’s First Nation involvement, but when you look at the details it’s not there.
“It’s a huge disappointment.”
The consultation process lasted five years, said Health and Social Services deputy minister Stu Whitley following Thursday’s vote.
“So there were an enormous number of opportunities to raise concerns.
“In fact, we’ve funded consultation directly to CYFN to the tune of $400,000, so it’s not as if there haven’t been opportunities to bring these concerns forward much earlier on in the process.”
Trouble is, First Nations didn’t even see the draft bill until just before Christmas, said Leas, CYFN’s legal counsel.
“It was a very secretive process, because we couldn’t see anything until it went to cabinet and came back,” he said.
After First Nations looked at the draft, the government granted one month of follow-up consultations.
But some First Nations didn’t even get visited by government officials because of the cold weather, said CYFN health and social director Lori Duncan.
Duncan travelled to the communities as part of the consultation process.
After the rushed consultations, “we were left out of the picture — we were no longer consulted about the changes,” she said.
“We only saw the changes when it was tabled.
“We’ve never been co-partners on the drafting — so it’s never been jointly, as (Fentie) always says.”
The original consultation process went well, said Duncan.
“But it went off track when the government decided to fast-track it,” she said.
“When you’ve gone into the communities to consult and they’ve come up with issues, then you need time to work on those issues to make it right.
“But there wasn’t ample time to do that.
“They fast-tracked it and put it into the legislature and there was no talk — the door was closed.”
CYFN never even saw the outcomes of the last round of consultations, added Leas.
“You have (Health) Minister (Brad Cathers) waving around consultation documents, and we question whether the contents of those documents are even addressed in the legislation,” he said.
“Ideally, if you have a good process, you want to say, ‘OK the consultations are saying this, so maybe we want to go back and fix this, this, this and this.’
“We didn’t see any of that — they went away and did it all internally.”
“Fentie’s position is, ‘If you don’t like it, you have self-government agreements — go and take it down yourself,’” said McKay.
“And yes, that is always an option for First Nations.
“But there are issues relating to capacity and cost. And actually building up a system could take years.”
So Yukon First Nations wanted to try and influence the bill to make the necessary changes, she said.
“Then maybe we don’t have to take it down — maybe we can live with it.
“But if you’re just slamming the door right now, and tabling a piece of legislation that does not reflect the community consultations, you’re doing a disservice.”
There have been plenty of consultations, said Whitley.
“All we can say is there has been a five-year process in which some First Nations have chosen not to participate at all,” he said.
“But now they come rather late to the process and say there are additional concerns.
“It’s somewhat surprising it’s coming at this late hour.”
But the draft was only made available in November, according to First Nations.
“November, how many months ago was that?” said Whitley.
“The bill addresses most of the issues we’ve heard,” he added.
“I’ve been at some of the recent press conferences; I’ve listened to the interviews myself with my colleagues, and we are confident that the concerns raised by First Nations are met in this legislation.”
One of the main issues was the discretionary power of the director, said Whitley.
“But it’s pretty clear the director’s discretion is exercised sparingly in favour of not including families, rather than the other way around.”
And there are instances when certain family members shouldn’t be included, he said, citing incest cases.
“You wouldn’t go to the parents of a child subjected to that to be part of the family planning,” he said.
Fentie has made a formal written commitment to Carvill that there will be a review of the legislation in a year, said Whitley.