As Premier François Legault struck a conciliatory tone in speaking about First Nations on Monday, his government quietly ramped up a legal battle against Indigenous child advocates across the province.

Legault came under fire last week for his refusal to adopt government reforms that would improve the treatment of Indigenous people in Quebec. His reasoning? The reforms mention systemic racism, a concept Legault says he doesn’t believe in.

But after days of backlash from across the political spectrum, the premier apologized for the “insensitivity” of his remarks. He said Quebec needs to show more compassion towards Indigenous people.

“The government is practically laughing at us.”

What he didn’t mention is that his government is fighting to strike down Bill C-92 — a federal law transferring control of youth protection for Indigenous children from the provinces to Indigenous Peoples. Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada contesting the law in court.

“The government is practically laughing at us,” said Peggie Jérôme, the head of an Anishinaabe-led youth protection service in Abitibi. “They’re fighting to block a good piece of federal legislation because they claim to know what’s best for us. But they won’t give us the resources we need to do our job right.

“They’ve always imposed their system on us, they want us to belong to them. But we’re not their Indians. We’re sovereign people who know what’s best for our children.”

Experts in childcare say Bill C-92, passed by the Trudeau Liberals in 2019, is a crucial step towards ending the cycle of Indigenous kids being abused and warehoused in the youth protection system.

In Quebec, provincial control of youth protection on reserves has led to generations of Indigenous mothers being separated from their children. While in foster care, countless children have had their language and customs stripped away. Some have even taken their lives while under the care of Quebec’s health and social services ministry.

This raises the question: Why is Legault’s government fighting to preserve this system?

During arguments before the Quebec Court of Appeal, the province’s lawyers have claimed that First Nations don’t have the right to legislate their own youth protection protocols. They also argued that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — which Canada has formally agreed to implement with the passage of Bill C-15 in June — is not legally binding.

Despite making up just less than 8 per cent of Canada’s youth population, Indigenous children account for roughly half of all kids in the foster care system.

“Quebec is essentially saying that we don’t have the ability or the authority to care for our children,” said Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador.

“It’s a question of money. Under C-92 the federal government would transfer funds directly to our communities instead of going through the province. Quebec doesn’t want that, Quebec wants to grease its palms with federal dollars at the expense of Indigenous families.”

Despite making up just less than 8 per cent of Canada’s youth population, Indigenous children account for roughly half of all kids in the foster care system. In raw numbers, there are more kids in state custody today than there were at the height of the residential school system. Transferring control of Indigenous youth protection to Indigenous communities was one of the key recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

“Right now, in Quebec, there are still Indigenous children being taken from their mothers 48 hours after being born. It’s a cruel and unjust system,” said Liberal MNA Gregory Kelley. “It’s harming families and communities that we should be helping.

“When you give communities the ability to manage their own system, families are kept intact and given the means to succeed. Instead of a punitive system, it’s a preventative system.”

Jérôme said that misunderstandings of Anishinaabe culture too often lead white youth protection workers to place children in care.

“In our culture, we let children explore more, we let them walk around their community because we know they’re surrounded by aunties and uncles who will look after them,” she said.

“An outsider might look at that and think of it as neglect. But it’s our community model of parenting. You’ll have others who see the poverty we live in and assume that it means we’re bad parents. Again, that’s an assumption rooted in misunderstanding and sometimes in racism.”

Under a 2004 amendment to Quebec’s Youth Protection Act, the province began working with First Nations to keep children from being placed in foster homes outside their communities. But it took 17 years for the amendment to come into effect.

“I’ve repeatedly asked the government how much money they’re spending on lawyers to fight C-92 and I haven’t gotten an answer.”

Last spring, three Atikamekw communities launched their own youth protection service after years of negotiating with the province. Their deal was followed closely by an agreement involving four Anishinaabe communities around Val-d’Or. Jérôme helped create a new youth protection service after consulting with Anishinaabe families, Elders and experts across the field of youth protection.

Today, some 15 additional Indigenous communities in Quebec are trying to use Bill C-92 to follow in the footsteps of the Anishinaabe and Atikamekw. But the province won’t even consider negotiating with First Nations and Ottawa at the same table.

“I’ve spoken to members of the Innu nations who say Quebec’s actions are creating serious roadblocks for them. It’s delaying a process that would keep their kids safe,” said Kelley. “This is a very strange approach the government is taking. I’ve repeatedly asked the government how much money they’re spending on lawyers to fight C-92 and I haven’t gotten an answer.

“This is money we could be using to help these communities.”

In theory, Quebec’s legal challenge of C-92 does not prevent communities from working with Ottawa to create their own youth protection departments. Though provincial lawyers may be taking on the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in court, the law hasn’t been overturned.

In practice, however, the province’s refusal to engage with Ottawa on C-92 has slowed the process. Sources in four First Nations say the court battle is significantly delaying the creation of better care for Indigenous children in the province.

“Quebec is willing to sign its own agreements with First Nations but it comes with strings attached,” said Picard. “C-92 doesn’t offer us more autonomy, it offers us full autonomy. We can’t accept anything less.

“You have a lot of sovereigntists and Bloc Québécois supporters who will say, ‘Oh you speak about systemic racism but Ottawa isn’t doing anything to get rid of the Indian Act.’ Well, that will take years, if not decades, of work. Right now, there’s a law on the table that will give our communities a crucial piece of self-determination, and the Quebec government is fighting against that.

“I’ll never forget when I sat down with the premier last year, one of his aides raised his voice to me. He said, ‘Do you really think First Nations are their own sovereign government?’ That says it all right there. They want their independence from Canada but they aren’t willing to acknowledge ours. They see our sovereignty as a threat, they’re scared we’ll start asserting ourselves over the natural resources on our territory and maybe veto their mines and their projects.”

Though she’s frustrated by the Legault government, Jérôme remains undaunted in her mission to start healing the wounds of colonialism.

“We are the best and most suited people to take care of our children,” said Jérôme. “They are our future ancestors. Yes, some of our mothers are struggling with the symptoms of colonialism — addiction, mental health crises and other challenges. But our communities are strong, we were independent long before Quebec existed and we continue to be independent.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.