The Court dismissed an appeal from a customary care provider seeking sole custody of a child with access to her natural parents at the care provider’s discretion. Under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017, Customary Care Agreements are to be preferred even to child protection proceedings in the case of Indigenous children. It would be inconsistent with this regime to allow an individual to bring a custody application that could result in a court order collapsing such an agreement, thereby disregarding the voluntary parental participation and Indigenous community input that defines it.
This appeal concerns the intersection between a Customary Care Agreement [“CCA”], and the application by an individual for custody of a child under the Children’s Law Reform Act [“CLRA”]. The Appellant seeks to lift the stay imposed by the motion judge on her application under the CLRA for sole custody of an Indigenous child, with access to the child’s natural parents at the Appellant’s discretion. The errors that the Appellant alleges mainly focus on the motion judge’s use of s 103 of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017 [“CYFSA”] as the authority for the stay that was imposed.
Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services [“KGCFS”] had been involved with the child’s parents since 2000 because of issues relating to domestic violence and substance abuse. Older children of the parents were being cared for by a relative in the community. Two other children were made Crown wards in 2009. In 2013, the mother’s file was reopened when KGCFS was advised that she was pregnant again.
Once born, the child was apprehended by KGCFS, which brought a protection application and placed her in the Appellant’s home for fostering. The Appellant is married to the child’s paternal great uncle. In 2014, a Wikwemikong Band Council Resolution was passed, resolving that the child would be in the care of the Appellant. This was done by Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve [“Wikwemikong”], the child’s First Nation, in “exercising its inherent authority and responsibility for the care of children of their community” and so that KGCFS could grant the Appellant a subsidy for care according to the custom of the Band/First Nation.
A CCA was made and came into force in 2015. As a result, the protection proceeding that had been initiated was withdrawn. Parties to the CCA are the mother, the father, Wikwemikong, the Appellant, KGCFS, and the Children’s Aid Society. The CCA was described as a “Long-Term” CCA which could be in effect until the child reached the age of 18 years. The CCA states that the Appellant, who is a Wikwemikong resident, is to be the “customary care provider.” She is given authority to consent to medical, surgical, dental, educational, psychological or diagnostic treatment and anesthetic care that a qualified medical or dental practitioner might recommend.
In 2018, the Appellant brought an application for full custody of the child under the CLRA, stating concerns with the parents. KGCFS may have had some concerns relating to the Appellant, but she had been working with them on a voluntary basis and that she wanted to terminate the CCA. The motion judge considered various sections of the CYFSA relating to the protection of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children. He reasoned that if a CCA was entered into, then it would be by agreement, and should be accorded deference as “a complete code for the resolution of child protection cases in appropriate circumstances.” The motion judge read CCAs into s 103 of the CYFSA as a valid reason for a stay of a custody application under the CLRA, as to conclude otherwise would be to diminish the importance of CCAs. To permit the custody application to continue would also invite the court to disregard the intent of the parties in setting up the CCA, which constituted a voluntary meeting of minds.
The motion judge stayed the appellant’s CLRA application for custody pursuant to s 103 of the CYFSA, and is subject to a correctness standard on appeal (Housen v Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 33). To assess the order made by the motion judge, the terms of s 103 of the CYFSA must be considered, its purpose, and legislative intent in child welfare legislation. Section 103 of the CYFSA dictates the pre-eminence of child welfare legislation, where child welfare proceedings have begun or an order has been made in those proceedings, and a person seeks custody under the CLRA. This section underscores the well-established principle that child protection legislation will take precedence over the jurisdiction granted to courts by other provincial legislation dealing with matters of custody (Fortowsky v Roman Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Essex (County),  OJ No 600 (CA)). Section 103 protects the integrity of the child welfare placement by ensuring that no other court can substitute its decision for that of the child protection court (Children’s Aid Society of St. Thomas and Elgin County v CZ and JH,  OJ No 4177 (CA)).
CCAs act as an alternative to child protection proceedings and serve as an expression of Indigenous community values in the sphere of child protection. In the circumstances of the CCA in this case, it would have been appropriate to exercise the court’s discretion to stay the CLRA application. That is not to say that any and all CCAs will equally merit the protection of the court against CLRA applications. The motion judge, however, committed no error in imposing a stay of proceedings on the Appellant’s CLRA application.