When asked what message she would like to share with Indigenous youth in government care, Mitzi Dean, B.C.’s new minister of Children and Family Development, said, “please find that trusted adult” and “please trust MCFD staff that are there doing their best to serve.”
As the new MCFD minister, Dean has a responsibility to Indigenous children who are grossly overrepresented in B.C.’s child welfare system due to the ongoing impacts of colonization and systemic racism.
As per her directions from premier John Horgan, Dean has a mandate not only to continue supporting children, youth, and families through the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to continue working with “Indigenous partners and the federal government to reform the child welfare system.”
This includes implementing the new federal Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families and the principles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (UNDRIP), and continuing to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care.
Dean is the MLA for Esquimalt-Metchosin. Before assuming her leadership role at MCFD last November, she served as the parliamentary secretary for gender equity from 2018 to 2020 and as the executive director of the Pacific Centre Family Services Association from 2007 to 2017.
IndigiNews interviewed Dean in December, just before the holiday break. We asked how she understands the overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in B.C.’s child welfare system, how she plans to support youth transitioning out of government care, and how she will implement UNDRIP.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
IndigiNews: Minister Dean, what has your experience been to date working with Indigenous children and youth in care?
Dean: Since I came to B.C, I’ve worked in the community social service sector. I’ve been delivering services to vulnerable people in the community, and making sure that we serve the most vulnerable through the agencies that I ran.
I have also been a member of a number of different committees and boards here on the South Island. I actually led the work on the Victoria Family Court Youth Justice Committee in the capital regional district, reviewing the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission] Calls to Action. It’s been a really important dimension of my work, and my learning and my knowledge, through the work that I’ve done in community of actually engaging with Indigenous communities and making sure that we provide culturally safe and culturally appropriate care, supports and services.
I also have been working really closely with Elder Shirley Alphonse from the T’Sou-ke Nation , and she’s been a wonderful guide and mentor to me since becoming elected as an MLA. It’s been wonderful to be able to work with her and share her support with other MLAs and with people down at the precinct here as well, and to make sure that the Legislature is actually a lot more informed and a lot more culturally safe, too.
I: Across Canada, Indigenous children and families are grossly over represented in the child welfare system. What do you understand to be some of the reasons behind this over representation?
D: It’s unacceptable. It has gone on for far too long. It’s a result of colonization, and I’m really excited about having the opportunity to actually change the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. My predecessor started that work before and some progress has been made.
For example, we made changes to the Child, Family and Community Service Act to make sure that Indigenous communities could have more control over child welfare in their communities. We changed the way that we work with vulnerable and expecting parents, making sure that newborns can be kept safely with families and ending what used to be called birth alerts. And really importantly, we made changes to the payment system so that extended family members can actually be paid for taking care of Indigenous youth who can’t stay at their home safely.
It’s really important to make sure that Indigenous youth can be cared for safely and, where possible, with extended family, and to make sure they’re connected to community and culture.
Now, what we’re doing is moving forward with making sure that Indigenous communities are able to exercise their jurisdiction so they’re actually able to have self-determination and control over the child welfare system. We changed provincial legislation to enable that, so that we’re now at a point where we have the lowest number of Indigenous children in care in 20 years.
I: The Representative for Children and Youth’s recent report on youth transitioning out of government care says that “Any changes to policies and practice need to center on Indigenous youth.” In your response letter, I noticed that it doesn’t mention Indigenous youth at all. Are you able to speak to that?
D: I really appreciate the young people who stepped up and shared their stories. They’re really powerful stories. As you rightly mentioned, Indigenous youth are overrepresented, and unacceptably so, in the child welfare system. They’re also at a disadvantage when it comes to maturing into adulthood and leaving government care as well.
We do need to make sure that all of our programs, including our pandemic response, is very responsive to recognizing who’s able to access those programs. In fact, the increased flexibility and the emergency measures that have been taken during COVID have actually resulted in more Indigenous youth being able to take advantage of those programs. We need to continue to improve those programs and make sure that they are more flexible, they’re more inclusive, and more accessible.
At the end of the day, what we need to do is create a whole system that is responsive to the needs of youth as they mature and as they head towards adulthood. So far, what we’ve got, what we inherited was just some programs. Our commitment is to create a whole system. I’m going to work with youth and with partners and with colleagues, and with Indigenous communities as well, to make sure that we can build that system.
I: The recent report also calls for more cultural competency training for MCFD staff. Do you have any plans on implementing this recommendation?
D: Well, it’s really important that all of our staff are more than competent. They need to be culturally safe and trauma-informed. So there has been ongoing work to make sure that all frontline staff do have cultural competence. That is something that obviously will need to continue because we are building relationships with Indigenous families.
We have increased expectations of frontline staff and for them to be working in partnership and to be supporting self-determination and family preservation. Those expectations are there. We will continue to provide the support and resources that staff need.
I: What, if any, specific steps do you plan to take to implement UNDRIP within the MCFD portfolio?
Well, we’re going to be working very closely with Indigenous leadership. And, thank you for the question because I’m so proud that we’re the first government in Canada to pass the legislation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I’ve actually already had a meeting with the First Nations Leadership Council. As we’re moving forward and building these systems, we need to do that in partnership, so we have already started that work.
In my past work, I worked with the Minister’s Advisory Council for Indigenous Women, which is located in the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. I know they are a wonderful and powerful group of women as well who are a wonderful resource that other ministries are able to consult with, so we will absolutely make sure that there’s ongoing consultation as we build our systems and make improvements.
I: I’m wondering if you have anything that you would like to share for Indigenous youth in care in B.C. who may be reading this article?
D: To Indigenous youth who are in care, I would say please find that trusted adult. We have some wonderful frontline staff and some wonderful resources. There are resources in community as well, and we know that for young people who have been in government care, having at least one trusted adult in their life can actually really help them make sure that they’re more successful as they grow into adulthood and as they move through education or careers. So, build on that relationship with one trusted adult, and please trust MCFD staff that are there doing their best to serve.
Are you an Indigenous youth in or from government care? We’d like to hear what you think of Minister Dean’s message. If you have a response or feedback that you would like to share with the public, please email [email protected]. We are happy to discuss ways to share your perspective without identifying you.