First Nation in Sask. preparing to take control of child welfare

Click to play video: 'First Nation in Sask. preparing to take control of child welfare'
First Nation in Sask. preparing to take control of child welfare
WATCH: Cowessess First Nation plans on ratifying their own child welfare laws on March 2, giving the community jurisdiction over their own kids in government care. David Baxter has the details. – Jan 6, 2020

Cowessess First Nation is currently finalizing work to assert their jurisdiction for the band’s child and family services.

The ability for First Nations to take charge of their own social services came into effect on Jan. 1 under Bill C-92. The goal of the federal legislation, passed in June, is to improve the health and outcomes of Indigenous children under government care.

Cowessess released their draft legislation, called the Miyo Pimatsowin Act, on Dec. 13, 2019, with a plan to ratify the child and family services law on March 2. Miyo Pimatsowin means “living a good life” when translated from Cree.

Cowessess is located about 160 kilometres west of Regina.

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Chief Cadmus Delorme said he’s been told Cowessess is the first First Nation to utilize the bill by federal officials. Global News has reached out to Indigenous Services Canada for confirmation.

“We all inherited the aftermath of the Indian Act, of the residential school legacy, of the 60s Scoop, and we all have to do reconciliation together,” Delorme said.

“So that is the forefront of what Cowessess is doing. We’re very excited for this moment in time to assert our rights as well as start our healing journey together.”

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Delorme stressed that Cowessess never gave up authority over children in care when the treaties were signed, and wants to be a leader in building First Nations’ jurisdiction over child and family services.

The Miyo Pimatsowin Act focuses on keeping children with their families, whether it’s immediate or extended family within the community. Developing ways to help prevent the need for child apprehension is a main goal.

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To differentiate this from current provincial social services practices, Delorme said he wants to change the way people think about social workers.

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“Let’s not call them social workers. We have aunties and uncles. That’s our kinship model at Cowessess.”

Delorme added there are around 350 Cowessess children in prevention. This means they may be apprehended if help is not provided in the home.

Bringing girls home

Keeping children with their parents isn’t possible in all situations. To address this, Cowessess opened their first youth transition home on Nov. 1, 2019, the Sacred Wolf Lodge.

The lodge has ten beds and is intended for girls aged 14 to 18, after which they age out of the social services system.

Eleven staff have been hired so far and the first two potential residents are going through the intake process, according to Delorme.

“This Sacred Wolf Lodge at home is for those children who probably won’t go back to their biological parents, but they can live with Cowesses; with grandparents in the home, with aunties and uncles in the home and that’s how we’re going to address is,” Delorme said.

Four Cowessess First Nation elders put a ceremonial shovel in the ground for the first nation’s new youth transition home. File / Cowessess First Nation

The band office has verified 165 Cowessess kids currently in government care. According to Delorme, they’re spread out between Manitoba and British Columbia. The band has fulltime “big sister” to build relationships with these children.

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“Her position is to identify, to make a relationship with the foster parents, to let the child know that Cowessess is here. We’re not here to interfere with your current state, but you have a big sister you can look out to,” Delorme explained.

“That’s how we got the potential two that might come to the Sacred Wolf Lodge.”

Delorme hopes to build more homes like this in the future.

In order for the Cowessess to fully get jurisdiction over their child and family services, they have to reach a tripartite with the federal and provincial governments. Delorme said they are discussing this with federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Saskatchewan Social Services Minister Paul Merriman.

Questions needing answers

While the ability for First Nations to assert their authority exists, Miller said change will not happen overnight, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

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The bill has been criticized by groups like the Saskatchewan Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) over not including concrete funding to help with the transition.

“Why pass Bill C-92 without the funding to follow? Without the funding to assist our First Nations? That’s pretty damn stupid if you ask me,” FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said on Dec. 11.

Minister Merriman echoed the concern about a lack of concrete federal funding. He added questions still need to be answered on how to ensure accountability for new child welfare agencies.

He added the Saskatchewan government’s main priority in this transition is ensuring child safety and ensuring children don’t fall through the cracks.

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Delorme said the implementation of Bill C-92 isn’t perfect, but it’s opening the door for important conversations.

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“It’s not that we’re confident going into this, but we all have an obligation to make sure that we don’t sentence another generation to what the current status quo is,” Delorme said when asked if he was confident federal funds would come through.

“Cowessess is coming into this serious. We’re coming into this thankful of all the people that did the work prior to this, but we have now taken this and we’re going to run with it and we look forward to implementing the Miyo Pimatsowin Act and showing this country there is a First Nation that is ready, that is responsible and we look forward to telling our journey’s story as we implement it.”

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