‘We want this to happen:’ First Nation moves on own child welfare law

COWESSESS, Sask. — A Saskatchewan chief says his First Nation is not waiting on Ottawa to announce funding before the band works toward taking over its own child welfare.

Cowessess First Nation, about 170 kilometres east of Regina, is one of at least eight aboriginal groups in Western Canada and Ontario that have notified Indigenous Services Canada that they intend to handle their own child and family services as allowed under new federal legislation.

Chief Cadmus Delorme says Cowessess has already drafted its own child services law — one of the first steps required before a First Nation can take over.

The Cowessess law establishes an agency and outlines principles for programs including prevention, apprehension and intervention. It could be ratified in March, said Delorme.

“We’re very serious about this. We want this to happen. We need this to happen,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“Is the government fiduciarily obligated to help us? Probably they are. Are we going to wait for that cheque to hit our account? Our children matter so much to us that we’re just going to figure this out.”

Federal legislation came into effect last month. It affirms the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities to handle their own child welfare in the hope of reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Social Services said more than 85 per cent of the 3,400 children in its care at the end of 2019 were Indigenous.

Delorme estimates Cowessess has 159 children in care and 350 receiving services for protection. Most of them are in Alberta, he said.

The First Nation is also working on co-ordination agreements with the federal government and provinces where Cowessess children are in care: Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario.

“Cowessess never gave jurisdiction to the provinces for our children in care,” Delorme said.

William Olscamp, a spokesman with Indigenous Services Canada, said Cowessess is an early adopter of the new legislation and is well advanced in developing its own child and family services law.

Delorme said he’s optimistic they will be ready by April. He expects the community will have spent about $250,000 in development costs, which include legal bills and trips to Ottawa.

He said there’s also a budget for the first year of implementation, but he wouldn’t provide a figure. He said that’s being discussed with the federal government.

Delorme doesn’t believe Cowessess can bring in its own child-welfare services without federal money.

“Realistically we can’t. We would have to take away (money) from something else.”

Some provinces and Indigenous leaders have expressed concern about a lack of clarity on funding for and how to bring in their own child-welfare models.

The Assembly of First Nations has said it could cost up to $3.5 billion for First Nations across the country.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 Saskatchewan First Nations, recently announced it wants $360 million from Ottawa over five years to implement the legislation on reserves.

“We will continue to work with First Nation, Inuit and Metis partners, as well as provincial and territorial governments, to enact the systemic change that is necessary in order to reform this broken system,” Vanessa Adams, press secretary for Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, said in an email.

Calculating specific costs also depends on the needs of the children, Delorme said. Some may require care for physical, mental and emotional needs that could cost tens of thousands of dollars each year, he said. That may not be so for others.

“Some children in care, they just require as minimal as a culture plan.

“They’re in a really good foster home and we want those children to stay where they are. We just want to make sure that they’re safe, (that) they have a good development plan … a good culture plan (and) they know where home is.”

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, said his group also intends to use the legislation. He believes the provinces shouldn’t offload all costs to the federal government.

He urged caution when it comes to funding requests from Indigenous groups.

“We’re all working towards the same outcome and hopefully Canada’s going to support us,” he said.

“But if we start asking way beyond Canada’s means, Canada’s going to try to avoid or temporarily delay this and that’s what worries me.”

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