A Saskatchewan First Nation made history Thursday, reasserting its right to care for and protect its own children.
Cowessess First Nation (CFN) Chief Cadmus Delorme said it’s the first community in Canada to establish an independent child welfare system.
“Cowessess First Nation is honoured and privileged that we made it to this end goal,” Delorme told Global News.
“It’s about ensuring that no child grows up with any gaps of inequality because that is our value — is our children and our children yet unborn.”
As of Thursday, CFN has coast-to-coast jurisdiction over its children in care, through its child welfare law, the Miyo Pimatisowin Act. Any Canadian province that has a Cowessess child in its care must alert the First Nation, Delorme said.
“The moment that they know that that child is a Cowessess First Nation registered citizen, they must contact us and we will work with them,” he said.
“We will have the final decision to control our destiny with our children in care.”
Delorme previously estimated there are roughly 165 Cowessess children in government care.
The transition away from the provincial system will be gradual, he said,
“The dimming of the lights approach means that we will work with the current system, but our jurisdiction is final and binding,” he said.
Healing colonial wounds
Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge is CFN’s child safety body, providing preventative and protective services to keep families together.
With the damages of Canada’s residential school system and the ’60s Scoop still prevalent, lodge staff seek to heal the wounds caused by colonialism.
The lodge employs fewer than 20 people, Delorme said but will expand to 60 in the coming years.
“We’ve built the framework and we’re now starting to build on top of the framework,” he said.
CFN councillor and lodge chair Jonathan Lerat said he’s excited to help Cowessess kids reconnect to their roots.
“Other than the birth of my children, this is the proudest day of my life,” Lerat said in an interview Thursday.
Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge oversees Sacred Wolf Lodge, which houses families struggling with trauma. Parents and children live there temporarily, healing with the help of lodge staff and kokums.
The lodge, which was operational prior to Thursday, already has a waitlist, Delorme said.
Agreement with governments still in the works
Cowessess is hoping for roughly $20 million annually to operate Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge. The provincial and federal governments have yet to sign the agreement outlining funding and the transition of power.
“We are currently finalizing these discussions with Cowessess First Nation and Saskatchewan to work towards signing a co-ordination agreement in the very near future,” Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) spokesperson Danielle Geary said in a statement.
“By working together, we are making significant progress towards reducing the number of Indigenous children in care and improving the well-being of Indigenous children and youth across the country.”
As of last fall, nearly 83 per cent of the 3,584 kids in Saskatchewan’s care were Indigenous, according to the province’s Social Services Ministry.
Minister Lori Carr said co-ordinating the jurisdictional transition with Cowessess and the federal government has been a positive experience.
“This will be a first in Saskatchewan and a first in Canada,” Carr said in an emailed statement.
“The Government of Saskatchewan wishes to acknowledge the tremendous initiative, care and diligence demonstrated by Cowessess First Nation, and congratulate them on this historic achievement.”
‘We look forward to sharing the story’
CFN passed its own child welfare legislation in March 2020, under Canada’s landmark Bill C-92, which empowers Indigenous communities to reclaim jurisdiction.
On Jan. 8, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Ontario became the first Indigenous community to enact its own child welfare law, Geary said. Many other communities across Canada are following suit.
ISC previously told Global News discussions around the co-ordination agreement between CFN, Saskatchewan and Canada “are the most advanced in the country.”
Delorme said he’s keen to help other Indigenous communities move away from colonial child welfare practices.
“We told the team, let’s celebrate today, and next week, we’ll probably start getting calls to come and share our story,” he said. “We look forward to sharing the story to getting to this moment.”