Two Winnipeg foster parents are waging an emotional legal battle to keep the child they have been raising for nearly two years.

The parents tell CBC News they fell in love with the 2½-year-old boy they have been caring for since he was six months old, and they would like to adopt him.

But the child's guardian, an agency under the Métis Child and Family Services Authority, objects.

The foster parents have been told that since they are Filipino and the child is part Métis, his long-term interests would be better served by placing him with a "culturally appropriate" Métis family.

"We are willing to commit ourselves in order to give [the boy] a better future," the foster mother said in an interview. "Whatever he needs, we will support him."

The couple and the boy cannot be named to protect the identity of the child, who first came into the foster parents' care in October 2011.

By September 2012, permanent guardianship of the boy was granted to the agency under the Métis Child and Family Services Authority.

Appealing child's removal

The agency contends the family was told about a plan to put the boy up for adoption and place him with a Métis family.

Last spring, the foster parents were told a match had been found and that the boy would soon be placed with the new adoptive family.

That's when the foster parents launched legal action, appealing the removal of the child.

Billie Schibler

Billie Schibler, chief executive officer of the Métis Child and Family Services Authority, says many past adoptions of aboriginal children into non-aboriginal homes have broken down over the years, with the children seeking their cultural identities and communities when they are adults. (CBC)

The foster mother said the little boy now calls her and her husband "Mama" and "Papa."

"We are disappointed. We feel sad," she said, adding that losing the child would be devastating.

During an arbitration hearing held earlier this month, the couple's lawyer, Paul Walsh, argued that the boy comes from a multicultural background. Although his birth mother is half Métis, the boy is also Dutch, Irish, Scottish and Ukrainian, he said.

Walsh said a bond has developed between the foster parents and the toddler over nearly two years, and that should be a bigger factor in his placement than one part of his cultural background. 

"I respect the notion that if all other things were equal, the cultural background — be it Métis or something else — is of significance. But it's trumped by bonding, by attachment, a multitude of other considerations that rank ahead of cultural heritage," he said.

Aiming to preserve culture

Billie Schibler, chief executive officer of the Métis Child and Family Services Authority, said that if a primary caregiver identifies as Métis, the mandate is to place the child in a Métis home long-term.

"We want to always do what we believe is in the best interest of children, but we also want to ensure that with every effort we are preserving our culture and our families, because that's what our communities are built on," said Schibler.

Cross-cultural adoptions of aboriginal children into non-aboriginal homes used to be quite common.

From the 1960s to the early 1980s, thousands of aboriginal children were placed with non-aboriginal families, sometimes out of province or in another country. The mass exodus of children became known as the "'60s scoop."

Schibler said many of the adoptions that took place in those years broke down, leaving a trail of broken lives as children grew into adults searching for their cultural identities and communities.

"We certainly saw the remnants, and still continue to see the remnants of those decisions," said Schibler.

"That broke apart so many communities, and it really was a step towards cultural genocide for a lot of these children."

Schibler said it's a period in history that can never be repeated, and things have now changed.

Birth mom wants boy to stay with couple

However, the boy's birth mother said that shouldn't matter in this case.

The 23-year-old woman  who also cannot be named to protect the child's identity — echoes Walsh's argument, saying that while her father was Métis, both she and her son come from multicultural backgrounds.

"Why does it have to be Métis? Métis is only one small part of him. The rest of him is the bigger part," she said.

The birth mother said she would like to see the boy stay with the foster parents he knows and has grown to love.

She fears moving the child would traumatize him.

"Right now the people he's with, he sees them as his parents. To him, it doesn't matter what colour or race they are. Why should it matter to me? Why should it matter to anyone else?" she said.

"He knows he's being loved and he's happy."

The arbitration hearing in this case wrapped up Sept. 12. The adjudicator has 15 days from that date to make a decision on the foster parents' appeal to have the boy remain in their home.

In the meantime, Walsh said the couple are filing a petition for guardianship of the boy.