By Miranda Leybourne
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Province of Manitoba on behalf of First Nation children, families and communities impacted by the child welfare system.
The $1-billion lawsuit, which was filed in the Court of King’s Bench Thursday, claims the child welfare system in Manitoba has failed First Nations and focuses on “off-reserve” children who, from 1992 to the present day, have been apprehended by Child and Family Services (CFS) and placed into foster care, according to a press release from AMC.
At a media conference in Winnipeg Thursday, AMC Grand Chief Cornell McLean said First Nations have the “authority and sacred responsibility” to ensure the well-being of their children, youth and families.
“Before colonization, it would be unthinkable to remove a child from their family, nation, lands and culture,” McLean said.
AMC is also asking the court for an immediate stop to “discriminatory practices” that have resulted in the apprehension of First Nation children.
At the conference, two people shared their own experiences with CFS.
While in CFS care, Amber Laplante, who is from Little Saskatchewan First Nation, 346 kilometres northeast of Brandon, said she was exposed to violence and trauma and was always treated as a problem and “never a person.”
“I never received the support I needed to heal,” Laplante said, adding that CFS also failed her daughter. Laplante said she never had a chance to parent her daughter and form a connection with her because she was in care.
“I am bringing this claim because First Nations youth, who are vulnerable like I was, need support that this system can never provide. I am bringing this claim so that my daughter and others like her can receive the care and support that I needed but never received,” Laplante said.
Roberta Godin said she was bringing the case forward because she believes that no child should grow up away from the love and care of their family, and that no parent should be denied the “right or responsibility” to love and care for their children.
“No family should have to go through what mine went through,” Godin said.
When First Nations children are apprehended by CFS, they lose the opportunity to know their identity, culture, language and teachings, said Heidi Cook, chief of Misipawistik Cree Nation, located 524 kilometres northeast of Brandon.
“When our children are removed, our nation is robbed of its future leaders and advocates, and these connections may never be restored,” Cook said.
As a chief, Cook said, she has a “right and responsibility” to ensure the well-being of her nation’s citizens, especially its children and families. Instead, she said, the provincial and federal governments have “assumed responsibility” of child welfare in Manitoba.
“After many warnings of the scope and the scale of their failures, they have created a crisis,” Cook said.
First Nations children are taken away from their homes at “disproportionate” rates, she said, which can lead to homelessness and make them 24 times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.
Reconciliation can’t be achieved without justice for the harm the child welfare system has done to First Nations, Cook added: “The CFS crisis should bring shame on Manitoba and Canada and cannot be allowed to continue to harm our people.”
After AMC held its Open Citizens Forum in 2014, when it heard from former children in care, parents, grandparents, workers and support service organizations who work or had involvement in CFS, the assembly developed a report, titled “Bringing Our Children Home.” To implement the recommendations in the report, AMC opened the First Nations Family Advocate Office on June 1, 2015. The office supports and advocates for First Nations families involved with CFS.
During the seven years Cora Morgan has been working as a First
Nations family advocate with AMC, she has heard about how harmful removing children from their mothers has been.
“I can’t even comment on how many mothers have told me that they’re breaking their bond,” Morgan said.
While First Nations family advocates have been successful at preventing the apprehension of more than 4,300 children, there are many more children in the system, Morgan said. Eighty per cent of the 11,000 children currently in care are First Nations, and many of those children are apprehended off-reserve.
“Over 150 years, we’ve had the issue of stolen children in this land, and we feel the damages. Every single First Nations person feels the damages of stolen children,” Morgan said.
The class-action lawsuit is represented by the Public Interest Law Centre, Legal Aid Manitoba, McCarthy Tetrault LLP and Parkland Collaborative Legal Options.
The Sun asked Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Chief Jennifer Bone for comment on the lawsuit but didn’t receive a response by press time.
Dakota Tiwahe Services, the organization that now provides child welfare services in Sioux Valley, was officially mandated to do so by provincial legislation on July 4, bringing the First Nation one step closer to having full jurisdiction of its CFS. Dakota Tiwahe Services also provides CFS to Dakota families both on- and off-reserve across Manitoba.
In a statement emailed to the Sun, the province confirmed it received the lawsuit and would review it.
“The province’s response will be made in court in due course,”
the statement read.
Miranda Leybourne is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter who works for the BRANDON SUN. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.