A southern Saskatchewan First Nation has created a tribunal independent of the provincial court system for handling child welfare matters.
On Monday, Cowessess First Nation launched the Eagle Woman Tribunal (EWT), which will make decisions on child welfare concerns, including custody disputes and citizen appeals.
Cowessess First Nation chief Cadmus Delorme believes the tribunal is the first of its kind.
“Eagle Woman Tribunal will play a historic and important role in our journey to self-government,” Delorme told Global News.
“We have never given up our rights.”
With Indigenous children staggeringly overrepresented in Saskatchewan’s child welfare system — 83 per cent as of last fall — Delorme said protecting Cowessess kids is key.
“This is our part of making sure that we build a … governance house for our children today and our children yet unborn,” he said.
The provincial court system fails to empower families, he said.
“Whatever lawyer has more experience and whatever client has more money to pay for the better lawyers, normally will have a higher chance of winning the case,” he said.
Eagle Woman Tribunal will help community members in child welfare disputes find their own resolutions. Tribunal members will facilitate talking and healing circles with the help of mediators.
Tribunal board chair and Cowessess coun. Denise Pelletier said she’s looking forward to getting started.
“We want to be able to give the parents, the grandparents, the child the voice to be able to say what they want,” she said. “We’re trying to bring the two parties together to deal with it without … the court systems imposing those decisions on them.”
There are nine people on the tribunal board: three on-reserve members, three off-reserve members and three non-members.
Board members are receiving training on mediation, understanding evidence and decision making, the First Nation said in a briefing about the tribunal.
While the tribunal has already launched, Delorme said Cowessess members must vote to ratify it into the First Nation’s constitution in the coming months.
Tribunal decisions will be final and binding, Delorme said. Its jurisdiction comes from Cowessess’ groundbreaking child welfare legislation, the Miyo Pimatisowan Act.
Once the legislation goes into effect on April 1, Cowessess will become one of the first Indigenous communities in Canada to operate its own child welfare system.
The First Nation’s child safety service, Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, is expected to launch the same day. Lodge staff will refer cases to the tribunal.
Cowessess is taking a phased approach to establishing its child welfare system, Delorme previously told Global News. Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge will start with roughly 10 staff members, expanding to 40 within two years.
The agreement between Cowessess and the Saskatchewan and Canadian government that coordinates the transition of power has yet to be signed. Delorme said the provincial and federal governments are finalizing their approval processes, but the child welfare system will launch April 1 regardless.