Some are hopeful a new agreement with the federal government will give First Nations more input into Manitoba's child welfare system — but that hope exists alongside the frustration and exhaustion of Indigenous parents united around one message.
"We can look after our own children. We don't need the province to tell us how to do that," said Cheryl Dreaver, who works in the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs' family advocate office in Winnipeg.
"What we want, essentially, is to bring our children home."
Dreaver and about 50 others chanted that call for reunification between Indigenous children and families Thursday at the Bring Our Children Home protest outside the Manitoba Legislature.
Dreaver equates the current situation of Indigenous kids in care in Manitoba with the injustices of the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, an adoption campaign that saw 20,000 Indigenous kids taken from their homes. Most were placed with white families.
'When it falls onto deaf ears who have an obligation to listen, of course you're going to have people who feel there's no other alternative but to protest.' - AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas
"It's a modern-day residential school and it's awful. Only it's worse because our children are being taken right from birth. At least in residential school they got to stay with their families until they were five. It's worse today."
Most recent estimates suggest Manitoba has about 11,000 kids in care, roughly 90 per cent of whom are Indigenous, making it the province with the highest number of children in the system.
About 1,700-kilometres away a few hours earlier, AMC Grand Chief Dumas, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott signed a memorandum of understanding in Ottawa the group says will lead to new "concrete outcomes" for First Nations involved in the Manitoba child welfare system.
"It was a very amazing experience, it was historic," Dumas said over the phone from Ottawa.
"I believe there is the political will to support grassroots people and Indigenous people and the chiefs of Manitoba to truly start changing the child and family issue in a meaningful way."
Bennett said the agreement strengthens partnerships with Manitoba First Nations and supports the federal government's commitment to a "nation-to-nation dialogue on child and family well-being." Philpott said it's an important step toward reducing the number of Indigenous kids in care and reunifying families and communities.
Asked whether the agreement has any teeth and comes with federal resources attached, Dumas said "absolutely" but wouldn't specify exactly what those resources are.
He wants Manitoba to adopt a model similar to some other provinces, which take federal child welfare transfers and set that money aside for children to claim when they age out of the system.
"There's no accountability from the provincial system," in Manitoba right now, Dumas said.
"They claim that they have the authority to do all these things. There's no onus on them to provide information to the federal government, let alone to ourselves, on how our resources are being used.… That's our children's money."
Manitoba Families Minister Scottt Fielding wouldn't say whether his government is open to such a model.
"All ideas are on the table," he said.
Dumas said the federal pledge will ensure that Manitoba chiefs have more oversight in how federal funds flow from Ottawa to Manitoba child welfare agencies. That will ensure funds are targeted toward prevention strategies and go to communities that need them most, Dumas said.
"We will be holding people more accountable and we will have a say as to how our resources are provided to our communities," Dumas said.
"We want jurisdiction over our children and we want to bring our children home."
'Our babies are our sovereignty'
Chickadee Richard, the traditional justice worker at the AFN's First Nations family advocate office, echoed that message at the protest at the legislature Thursday in Winnipeg.
"Our babies are our sovereignty, our children are our sovereignty," Richard said.
She said the Manitoba government continues to fail Indigenous families and is creating an industry on the backs of Indigenous children apprehended by the CFS system.
Kids who grow up outside their culture struggle to reintegrate when they become adults and "age out" of the system, she said.
"They have no belonging, they have no identity, they have no culture, because they are being raised by non-Indigenous families," she said.
"The foster parents are being given so much resources and monies to look after [them], but the [Indigenous] families aren't getting the same kind of respect."
Dumas said he supports those who protested Thursday and encouraged the province to take heed.
"It's a signal.… When it falls onto deaf ears who have an obligation to listen, of course you're going to have people who feel there's no other alternative but to protest," he said.
Dumas said Manitoba chiefs hoped to have a better working relationship with Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government when it was elected in 2016, but that hasn't been the case. Instead, Dumas says the province has ignored the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs' invitation to collaborate on legislative changes.
Families minister to meet with feds
He worries that changes announced to guardianship rules in the child welfare system will create an incentive for apprehension and put more distance between government and First Nations.
"I encourage Minister Fielding and the premier to work with us in a meaningful way or we won't be able to move forward in the way everyone would like," he said.
Minister Fielding said the government is committed to reunifying families as it works to overhaul the child and family system. The province is introducing "customary care" legislation meant to give families and communities decision-making power over how Indigenous kids in the system can be better taken care of within their own culture, he said.
Fielding said he and Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels are meeting with Minister Philpott in Ottawa Monday to address what they call a "crisis."