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‘We all stood together’: Gitanmaax Band stops B.C. social worker from seizing youth

Click to play video: 'Members of B.C. First Nation block social workers from taking six-year-old girl' Members of B.C. First Nation block social workers from taking six-year-old girl
The members of a northern B.C. First Nation blocked government social workers from taking a six-year-old girl back into foster care. Kamil Karamali reports on why they felt the need to take action, and how they say it's the beginning of the end of children being taken off their reserve – Oct 18, 2021

The Gitanmaax Band in northern B.C. is standing its ground, refusing to let the provincial child welfare system remove another one of its children.

On Sunday night, allies joined the band’s hereditary chiefs in blocking road access as a social worker entered the Hazelton, B.C., reserve to take a six-year-old girl back into foster care.

The girl was visiting her matrilineal family for a week in Gitanmaax, and belongs to the Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit house of the Gitxsan Nation.

Read more: ‘Warriored up’ survivors speak truth to power at ceremony in Kamloops, B.C.

“We never want to lose a child,” said Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, who belongs to the same Gitxsan house group and attended the resistance demonstration on Sunday.

“We never want those children to grow up without knowing who they are, where they come from, who their ancestors are — their history, their stories, their inheritance.”

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According to the community, the child has been placed in the protection of her house group.

On Instagram, Sutherland-Wilson posted that she is “surrounded by loved ones … learning our language, playing with cousins, and hearing the stories of her ancestors.”

Click to play video: 'Prime Minister Trudeau on preventing Indigenous children from being removed from families into foster care' Prime Minister Trudeau on preventing Indigenous children from being removed from families into foster care
Prime Minister Trudeau on preventing Indigenous children from being removed from families into foster care – Oct 18, 2021

To protect her identity, little information has been shared about the girl’s family circumstances in Gitanmaax or her previous experience in provincial foster care.

Her house group said she suffered a broken collarbone under the ministry’s care, but details of that injury were also kept private.

Sutherland-Wilson said no full custody agreement has been reached for the girl.

“There was a reason why we had to take this step. That’s because many other steps had already been exacerbated,” he explained.

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“Within the courts, we’ve been going through all the processes, and despite all these promises, in these numerous bills overtly claiming to support Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare, we’ve still found the system has not been conducive to keeping children within our community.”

Read more: Mixed emotions from B.C. chiefs after Trudeau’s ‘crucial’ visit to Kamloops

Canada’s foster care system has been compared to a modern-day residential school system.

According to census data, Indigenous children represent less than eight per cent of Canada’s children under age 14, but make up more than half of children in foster care.

Vancouver-based Métis lawyer Roslyn Chambers said Indigenous peoples have a plan for their children, and under these circumstances, “unfortunately, this is how it has to be demonstrated.”

“The problem is that the government doesn’t seem to involve the community, doesn’t seem to deal with the Indigenous nature of the children, and the unique impacts that taking a child away from his community and his family has,” she told Global News.

“Taking children out of their communities, out of their culture, with no known date of return.”

Click to play video: 'Indigenous lawyer warns Canada’s current child welfare system represents a ‘new residential school’ system' Indigenous lawyer warns Canada’s current child welfare system represents a ‘new residential school’ system
Indigenous lawyer warns Canada’s current child welfare system represents a ‘new residential school’ system – Sep 30, 2021

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in Kamloops, B.C., where he vowed to work with communities to develop child welfare policies that work for them.

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In July, Ottawa signed an agreement with the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan that saw the community retake jurisdiction of its child welfare system, and Trudeau said similar agreements are being etched across the country.

“It’s unacceptable and it’s an example of this country not understanding the lessons, the horrific lessons of residential schools,” he said the system in widespread use today.

The federal government will provide the necessary resources to keep kids at risk in their communities, he added, and work “at their pace.”

Read more: First Nation chief calls for ‘peaceful resolution’ on Trudeau’s visit to Kamloops, B.C.

In a Monday interview, B.C. Minister of Children and Family Development Mitzi Dean said she was unable to address the particular circumstances of the girl in Gitanmaax, but said her department’s staff have been working closely with the family and community.

“We know how important it is to keep children and youth connected to their family, their community, their culture,” said Dean. “The safety and health and wellbeing of children and youth is our absolute priority.”

Progress has been made with B.C. First Nations seeking jurisdiction of the child welfare system, the minister added, with several working groups currently negotiating agreements.

There has been “over-involved” of government in the lives of Indigenous children and youth for “far too long,” said Dean, but the province won’t rush into any legislative changes.

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“We will go at their pace,” she said. “Every nation is at a different stage of being able to enter into these discussions, and also every nation is going to want a different solution for their community.”

Click to play video: 'Survivors of former Kamloops residential school speak out' Survivors of former Kamloops residential school speak out
Survivors of former Kamloops residential school speak out – Oct 18, 2021

Since Gitanmaax and its allies held their ground on Sunday night, Sutherland-Wilson said many people have reached out to express their support and understanding.

“Ultimately, I think this story exists at a much wider scale than just the Gitxsan Nation,” he said.

“Ultimately, there was a great sense of relief and empowerment as we all stood together and we all stood up for the young citizen of our Gitxsan people.”

He said a rally will be held at the Ministry of Children and Family Development office in Hazelton on Tuesday at 9 a.m. to demand that the province cede control over child welfare to the Gitxsan Nation.

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