Cowichan Tribes retake control of child welfare in agreement with B.C., feds

Click to play video: 'Cowichan Tribes sign historic agreement to restore jurisdiction over child services'
Cowichan Tribes sign historic agreement to restore jurisdiction over child services
WATCH: The province's most populous First Nation has signed an agreement that restore its jurisdiction over child and family services. – Jun 24, 2024

British Columbia’s largest First Nation has signed a landmark agreement with the provincial and federal governments restoring its authority over child welfare and family services.

Cowichan Tribes Chief Cindy Daniels, B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Grace Lore and federal Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hadju inked the coordination agreement on Monday.

“Reconciliation has brought us a long way. Fifteen, 20 years ago, who would have thought today would happen? Who would have thought that they would listen to our voice? Who would have thought we would be the decision-makers for our kids?” Daniels said.

Click to play video: 'Supreme Court upholds Ottawa’s Indigenous child welfare law'
Supreme Court upholds Ottawa’s Indigenous child welfare law

“We want to keep our kids in the community. We don’t want to hear the horror stories of them being removed from our reserve. They need to learn their culture, they need to learn their language, they need to stay with their families and their communities.”

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In November 2023, Cowichan Tribes members voted 83 per cent in favour of Snuw’uy’ulhtst tu Quw’utsun Mustimuhw u’ tu Shhw’a’luqw’a I’ Smun’eem (The Laws of the Cowichan People for Families and Children). Nation officials have been in talks with their provincial and federal counterparts to hammer out an implementation plan since then.

The nation never gave up its authority over child welfare, but the federal government amended the Indian Act in the 1950s assigning provinces the power to impose their own laws on reserves. Child apprehensions skyrocketed in the years following, in part of what later became known as the “Sixties Scoop.”

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“This was an intentional decision by the government of Canada and many provinces and territories in this work to continue to control the narrative in this country, the resources in this country and the power in this country,” Hadju said Monday.

“So it is extremely poignant for me to stand here and try to make amends for a country that has brought so much harm on people and on families.”

Click to play video: 'Cowessess First Nation taking over child welfare system after signing historic agreement'
Cowessess First Nation taking over child welfare system after signing historic agreement

The new law creates a Cowichan child and family services authority and will apply to Cowichan citizens.

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It includes new requirements for how decisions are made to prioritize keeping children with families and will include elders, extended families and community members “as they were always meant to be,” Daniels said.

Daniels added that the new authority will take a proactive approach to try and avoid late-stage interventions. It will prioritize providing services to families struggling with poverty, inadequate housing, substance abuse or mental health issues, she added.

“Today is not just about being hopeful for the future, it is about real optimism because we are putting in place our law with the resources and supports to make real change,” Daniels said.

“We are leaving behind the practice of child apprehension and placements that have alienated children from their families and our community for generations, practices that have repeatedly caused trauma.”

Jennifer Charlesworth, British Columbia’s representative for children and youth, called the agreement “momentous” and lauded the Cowichan Tribes for years of work to reclaim their laws.

“It’s very different than the colonial systems that we have right now, so it’s exciting to see what they’ve achieved and where they’re going to go,” she said.

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The significance of Ottawa’s landmark deal to compensate children harmed by the Indigenous child welfare system

The agreement helps ensure a connection to family and culture, she added, addressing one of the key elements in preventing neglect, abuse and trauma among children.

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“Unfortunately, we’ve had a system over decades that has removed children disproportionately from Indigenous families and placed them with non-Indigenous carers,” she said.

“And the evidence is pretty compelling that that’s a concern and it’s not what’s in the best interests of the children.”

The agreement is the culmination of three decades of work by the Cowichan Tribes to regain control over child welfare.

It comes following 2019 legislation from the federal Liberal government affirming Indigenous rights to self-government, including jurisdiction over child and family services. British Columbia became the first province in Canada to pass its own, similar legislation in 2022.

Ottawa has since signed eight agreements with First Nations, including two in B.C., returning control over child welfare to Indigenous communities.

The federal government is providing the nation with $207.5 million and the B.C. government is contributing $22 million over the four-year term of the coordination agreement.

— with files from Angela Jung

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