By Jeremy Appel
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Louis Bull Tribe has signed a two-year agreement with the federal government allowing the First Nation to operate its own child welfare system.
This is the first child welfare agreement between a First Nation in Alberta and the feds, following similar arrangements with Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Ontario and Peguis First Nation in Manitoba.
“This is an important day for Louis Bull Tribe,” Chief Desmond Bull said during the Feb. 1 signing ceremony. “Our children are sacred. This law seeks to bring them home.”
Notably, the agreement is between Louis Bull Tribe, which is located in Maskwacis, just south of Edmonton, and the federal government. The province wasn’t formally involved, despite child welfare systems being provincially-administered.
Under federal legislation, if a First Nation cannot reach an agreement with the provincial government after a year, it can go through the federal government. Last year, the tribe’s Asikiw Mostos O’pikinawasiwin (AMO) Society for child welfare said the province was being uncooperative, so the tribe announced AMO would assume control in accordance with the federal law.
The two-year agreement, which the feds are funding to the tune of $124.8 million, is intended to give the tribe sovereignty over its child welfare services while it works out an agreement with the province.
“The Creator has given sovereignty to govern ourselves,” Bull said, adding that the agreement will hopefully “ensure those generations are brought up immersed in culture.”
Bull said the agreement provides “the base and the foundation for us to look forward to developing something stronger, something more permanent, something that will allow that bilateral agreement to continue.”
Elder Henry Rain, who opened the press conference with a prayer, said it was “a long struggle to get where we are,” but now the nation is ready “to bring our children home.”
Compared to the province’s child welfare services, the AMO emphasizes prevention and early intervention while ensuring children are able to retain Treaty, language, custom and sovereign rights, APTN News reported.
The AMO Society works with parents to find an approach that’s suitable towards their unique needs.
“Our laws are preventative. We don’t have legal authorities for temporary guardianship. We focus on less destructive measures,” explained Cayla Laroque-Wolf, the AMO Society’s interim children’s commissioner.
The society provides services to more than 335 children, not all of whom are in care.
“Today, we can teach our children our culture, language history and everything that we believe in our faith and medicines,” AMO Society chair and Louis Bull tribal councillor Barbara Laroque said.
Alberta children’s services ministry spokesperson Chinenye Anokwuru told Global News the province has “worked collaboratively with the Louis Bull Tribe to support transition to their law.”
Anokwuru added that the government provided the tribe with transition funding after it announced the AMO Society would assume control child welfare services, although that funding ran out in September.
“We also continued to fund the cost of placement for some children and youth, as needed, and made sure they had staff for six months, with after-hour services, office space and equipment at no cost to the Louis Bull Tribe,” she added.
Although the agreement bypassed the provincial government, the ministry “continues to work with the Louis Bull Tribe where necessary, as part of our commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of all children and youth in care,” Anokwuru said.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the ALBERTA NATIVE NEWS. The LJI program is federally funded.