First Nations leaders and the official opposition are chastising the Saskatchewan government for its approach to child welfare, saying it has failed to protect Indigenous children.
Last year, there were 3,412 children in the province’s care — the highest number since 2008, according to the Ministry of Social Services.
Eighty-six per cent of those children were identified as Indigenous. About 16 per cent of Saskatchewan’s population is Indigenous, according to 2016 census data.
“These numbers just show the failure of the current child welfare system in this region when it comes to caring for Indigenous children,” said David Pratt, vice chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN).
Saskatchewan’s child advocate was notified of 34 deaths last year. Twenty-nine of them were First Nations and Métis children.
“One death is too much,” Pratt said.
It will take a staggering amount of work to undo the damages of colonialism and misguided government policies, Pratt said.
The road ahead must include support for the implementation of the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families, he said. The federal legislation came into force on Jan. 1, empowering Indigenous communities to reassert their jurisdiction over child welfare.
“If you give First Nations the tools, if you give us the resourcing, we’ll finish the job,” Pratt said.
“We’ll bring our families home.”
The FSIN is calling for statutory federal funding to help First Nations retake control of child and family services. The province must work with Indigenous leaders to implement the act, Pratt said.
In a statement to Global News, the social services ministry said it’s focused on a safe transition and will participate in discussions when invited.
“We respect the intent of the legislation overall, where Indigenous children and families are supported by their communities, and within their own customs and cultural traditions,” the statement reads.
In the meantime, the FSIN and Saskatchewan NDP are calling on the province to do more to address the systemic reasons why so many Indigenous children are taken from their families.
They’re calling for a review of the child welfare system, and better strategies to address addictions, mental health and poverty.
The provincial government introduced a poverty reduction strategy in 2016, which aims to reduce the number of people experiencing poverty by 50 per cent by 2025.
The province has invested $275 million into social programs for low-income families since 2007, according to the social services ministry.
Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the provincial government has done nothing of meaningful change.
“This cannot continue to go on with this terrible trend and this terrible situation for Saskatchewan kids,” he said.
Social services said it has made strides in offering services to keep kids at home and to connect apprehended children with extended family caregivers.
“Children only come into care when there are no options to ensure their safety at home,” the ministry said. “In the case where a child or youth comes into care, we look to their extended family first.”
About 60 per cent of kids in care live with extended family, the ministry added.