February 2016 – Nelson House, Manitoba

The NCN Family and Community Wellness Centre is working with the provincial government to avoid changes to Child and Family Services staffing and programming despite serious financial cutbacks.

In January, CEO Felix Walker received news that the province would be withholding $600,000 of funding for child and family services in the NCN area. The money was expected this fiscal year, which ends March 31, and Walker says the money has already been spent.

At the time, he told the Winnipeg Free Press that a deficit would likely be carried through into next year and that layoffs and reduced services would have to be considered.

Shortly after the clawback came to light, the Board of the Family and Community Wellness Centre sent a letter to Minister Irvin-Ross with recommendations that could minimize job loss and reduce cutbacks. NCN Chief Marcel Moody and Assembly of Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak also met with the Minister to present their concerns on behalf of the community.

The money in question is the children’s special allowance (CSA), which is federal money paid directly to Canadian parents in the form of the child tax benefit and the universal child care benefit. But for children in care, the federal government pays that same money to child-welfare agencies instead.

Financial assistance for children in Canada is sent out in a complex system. Children living on reserves are funded differently than those who are off-reserve, and the funding a reserve receives is based on how many children are in care, as opposed to the specific needs of each First Nation. NCN CFS has made great strides in past years to reduce the number of children in care.

For several years, the provincial government has withheld portions of the money owed to the NCN Child and Family Services. However, this year, the province was set to reduce its funding by the entire $600,000 the child-welfare agency would typically have received from Ottawa.

If you are confused by federal money being withheld by the province, you are not alone.

Lore Mirwaldt is the agency’s lawyer. She says they have not received a proper explanation from the province, including Premier Greg Selinger, Minister Irvin-Ross, or the Northern Authority.

“All we want from this minister is a clear answer,” Mirwaldt said. “Why are you taking this money?”

In a letter the agency received in January from the Northern Authority, which oversees the NCN Child and Family Services, it was explained that to cover its own costs in supporting off-reserve programs, the province was requisitioning the funds.

Premier Greg Selinger told the media that Minister Irvin-Ross and the Northern Authority were working together to ensure critical services would not be lost nor positions terminated.

Upon hearing the suggestions from Moody, Nepinak, and the Board, Minister Irvin-Ross has committed to looking into a new funding model. A meeting is scheduled for the end of February with senior government officials and Wellness Centre senior management to collaborate on the logistics of that model.

Walker is feeling confident after the swift follow-up from the government and initial conversations. He says Wellness Centre management is hopeful further planning now will result in “no further cutbacks in the future.”

“The Minister has listened to our recommendations and we are optimistic there will be no job cuts,” he says. “Our recommendation and proposal is to restore the funding levels based on the 2013/14 funding levels. This will ensure stabilized funding and allow our budgets and programs going forward to keep a similar level of services for our community and children.”

The NCN child-welfare agency is considered one of the strongest in Canada and has served as a model for others. In particular, the agency has implemented changes that, when possible, keep children at home in their regular routines with extended family, while the parent(s) receive required services, treatment or assistance outside the home.

The statistics of such innovative programs are impressive. The NCN agency is rare, in that it has fewer children in care now than five years ago. In fact, there are 26 per cent fewer children in care, both on and off reserve. Wellness Centre management hope to continue to build on the past success with the necessary funding.