By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The chief of a First Nations community that was the first in Canada to take back control of its Child and Family Services (CFS) under a new federal bill spoke in Winnipeg on Wednesday about what Manitoba First Nations communities must now do to regain control over their child welfare systems.
And he made it clear that when Indigenous communities seek control of those systems, it should be them and not provincial or federal governments that are taking the lead and calling the shots.
“You’ve got to understand that you now drive the car, you tell the provinces and Canada where they sit,” Cadmus Delorme, the Chief of the Cowessess First Nation said on Wednesday, while speaking in Winnipeg at the Empowering Our Children assembly hosted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO)
“You slap their hand and say, `I’m calling the tunes on the radio now.”’
Delorme was in Winnipeg to speak at the Assembly this week just months after Cowessess First Nation, a First Nations community in southern Saskatchewan, signed a historic agreement with the federal government to take back control of their CFS system, a system they had no control over since 1951.
The agreement between Cowessess and the feds was signed in July and is the first signed under new legislation introduced in 2019 that seeks to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care in Canada and to give First Nations communities more and greater control over child welfare systems.
According to the federal government, Indigenous children under the age of 14 account for 52% of children in foster care across the country, despite making up just 7% of all children in that age group in Canada.
But that overrepresentation is much higher for Indigenous children in Manitoba, as according to information released by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, about 90% of the approximately 12,000 youth currently in care in Manitoba are Indigenous.
Delorme said the new agreement has already brought “success stories” as one year ago there were four children on-reserve in Cowessess who were in care, but one year later that number now sits at zero.
He said First Nations communities must now be willing to work with the federal government on agreements like the one signed in his community, but also be patient as communities’ transition into taking complete control of their CFS.
“You have to understand it’s not like you just flip a light switch, so the ministries do still play a part while we transition,” he said.
“But now every child apprehended is apprehended under our law, and we will be a part of every conversation.”
During the Assembly, which is bringing together Indigenous leaders and government officials this week for three days of discussions around how to improve outcomes for Indigenous youth in Manitoba, MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee gave an impassioned speech about why he believes Manitoba’s First Nations communities must work to take back control of CFS systems.
“It’s all about the children,” Settee said. “What kind of future will they have? What kind of path are we going to pave for them?
“It’s not about our organizations or our agenda, it’ not about a fiscal plan or politics, it’s about our children and we must never ever forget that.”
Settee said he believes he will see a day when all First Nations in Manitoba regain control over their child welfare systems, and he said that will allow those communities to keep more of their children connected to their homes and to their culture.
“First Nations now have the opportunity to take back their children from governments, from legislation, from policy, and from further harm and abuse,” Settee said.
“The day is coming my brothers and my sisters when our children will no longer be taken away from First Nations and given to different families that do not know our culture or language.
“Our people are rising up and saying `no more.”’
– Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.