A Saskatchewan First Nation is gearing up to become one of the the first Indigenous communities in Canada to launch its own child welfare system.
On April 1, Cowessess First Nation plans to reassert jurisdiction over child welfare, which it never surrendered.
“We’ll control and own our own destiny,” said Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme.
“We will have a say on every child in care, every family in prevention.”
It’s been one year since Cowessess notified Canada it was developing its groundbreaking child welfare legislation, the Miyo Pimatisowan Act. The act was ratified last March.
Now, Ottawa and Saskatchewan are working out funding in a coordination agreement, which Delorme expects to be finalized in February. Cowessess is hoping for roughly $20 million annually to operate Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, the First Nation’s child safety service.
“We’re honoured to be the first (in Saskatchewan), but… we also want to help others when they’re ready,” Delorme told Global News.
“To have full jurisdiction fall within our rights is going to allow us to make sure that we don’t sentence another generation when it comes to children in care.”
Indigenous children are overrepresented in Canadian child welfare systems at a staggering rate. Saskatchewan social services ministry data obtained by Global News showed as of Sept. 30, nearly 83 per cent of the 3,584 kids in provincial care were Indigenous.
It’s not entirely clear how many Cowessess children are in care across Canada, but Delorme said it’s around 165.
How will the system work?
The transition of responsibilities will be gradual, starting with a focus on Cowessess children in Saskatchewan.
“This jurisdiction is coast to coast to coast. It’s not just on the reserve,” Delorme said.
Come spring, Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge will have about 10 staff members, expanding to 40 within two years, he said.
The lodge will run preventative and protective services, getting to the colonial roots of many families’ pain: intergenerational trauma.
The final say on what happens to children in need will fall on the lodge’s CEO, Eva Coles — not a provincial judge or minister.
“It’s going to have some bumps in the road, but basically, we can’t go wrong,” said Coles, who has worked with Indigenous family service agencies for years.
“The system isn’t changing for these families, so we need to get in there really quickly and do as much as we can.”
Instead of apprehending children, kokums are being trained to care for kids in their own homes, while their parents get help. Lodge staff will connect families to counselling and community support groups.
Ottawa, Saskatchewan fully supportive
Over the past year, stakeholders have spent countless hours in meetings to develop the system.
“When you’re starting with a clean slate, you have to think of absolutely every detail to try to ensure that we don’t shortchange the children,” Coles said.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said the coordination agreement will outline responsibilities for Cowessess, Saskatchewan and the federal government.
Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Ontario began exercising its jurisdiction on Jan. 8, prior to their coordination agreement being finalized, ISC said.
“However, the trilateral coordination agreement discussions that include Cowessess First Nation, the Government of Saskatchewan, and Canada, are the most advanced in the country and are intended to coordinate the implementation of the Cowessess Miyo Pimatisowin Act,” an ISC spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The federal government has been fully committed to helping Cowessess succeed in this historic undertaking, ISC said.
“The community has worked tirelessly to bring generations of knowledge to the forefront of this process to ensure their children are supported and cared for through the connection to community and culture,” ISC said.
In a statement, Saskatchewan social services minister Lori Carr said the province has welcomed the opportunity to participate in the planning process.
“(We) wish to acknowledge the tremendous initiative, care and diligence demonstrated by Cowessess First Nation in this work,” Carr said. “Our focus continues to be on working together to support a safe transition.”