Manitoba

Opaskwayak Cree Nation aims to take over its child welfare services by next fall

Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba has officially started the process of creating a law that gives jurisdiction for its child and family services to the First Nation, instead of the Manitoba government.

Manitoba First Nation's child welfare law should be completed by October; will take over duties year later

Opaskwayak Cree Nation's child welfare law should be completed by Oct. 16, says Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair. (Submitted by Opaskwayak Cree Nation band office)

A First Nation in northern Manitoba plans to take over child welfare responsibilities for its members by October of next year.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation, located about 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, near The Pas, signed a declaration that will officially begin the process of creating a law that gives jurisdiction for its child and family services to the First Nation, instead of the Manitoba government.

"After decades of assimilationist and discriminatory laws and policies, Opaskwayak will be asserting full, inherent jurisdiction over child and family services," said OCN Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair at a news conference Wednesday.

"Our children will remain with their families, our parents and families will receive the supports they need, and Opaskwayak will continue to thrive as we return to our own Ininewak ways."

Indigenous children and youth are dramatically overrepresented in Manitoba's government-run child welfare system.

Nearly 90 per cent of all kids in Child and Family Services care in Manitoba are Indigenous, and research says many later experience homelessness or become involved in the justice system, among other issues.

On Jan. 1, federal Bill C-92 came into effect. The legislation creates standards for Indigenous children in care, but also makes it possible for Indigenous communities to create their own child welfare laws, which take effect after giving the federal government one year's notice.

'Time has come' for new laws

Section 20 of the bill sets out how an Indigenous government can enter into a co-ordination agreement with the federal minister of Indigenous services and the band's provincial government, in order to take over child welfare services.

"Manitoba's child welfare laws have been in existence now for 100 years, and the time has come now to replace these laws. For far too long they've harmed our children and our families," said Harold Cochrane, a managing partner with the law firm Cochrane Saxberg Johnston Johnson and Scarcello.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation hired the Winnipeg firm to help draft and implement its child welfare law because it has an expertise in Indigenous and child protection law, and Cochrane is a member of Fisher River Cree Nation, about 175 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

The law firm and OCN Child and Family Services have already started reviewing Manitoba CFS departments, to find out what works and help guide the creation of OCN's new laws.

There are 195 OCN children and youth who are currently in Child and Family Services care, the band says. Sixty-five of those live off reserve, while the other 130 live on reserve. (CBC)

"The current provincial child welfare regime is what I would call apprehension-based and very adversarial, and it's a system that pits our families against the system, and that has not worked," said Cochrane.

Two big changes to come will be preventing families from having to be involved in the province CFS system, and helping rebuild families who have been impacted by that system, he said.

"The system that has been imposed on our people for decades has broken our families in a lot of ways."

Another team that includes elders, OCN Child and Family Services, and other people with lived experience in the provincial system will be in charge of overseeing the process of creating the new law. That will involve community consultations with OCN members who live on and off reserve.

The community consultations will take place in August and September in Opaskwayak and Winnipeg.

OCN's child welfare law should be completed by Oct. 16, Sinclair said. Then, the band will give notice to the federal government that it wants to enter into a co-ordination agreement.

The process of creating the new child welfare law is being funded fully by OCN, as there are currently no financial resources in place from the provincial or federal governments, said Sinclair.

An agreement signed earlier this month by Indigenous Services and the Assembly of First Nations established a "joint fiscal table" where the federal government and First Nations can negotiate funding agreements to support communities that want to take responsibility for child and family services.

Sinclair said the hope is by entering into a co-ordination agreement, the federal government will take the initiative and provide money that allows for equitable standards.

"This will allow us to do and complete the work that we need to do, but with the bigger picture coming, we do have a letter in to Minister [of Indigenous Services] Marc Miller's office to reimburse us for the costs that we are absorbing upfront," he said. 

But more important, once the new law is in place, is that "the funding is there to provide us with what we need as a First Nation going forward — and for all of the First Nations in Canada for that matter, including the Métis and the Inuit," Sinclair said.

Asked how much money OCN is spending to create its child welfare law, Sinclair did not get specific, but said it's near $500,000.

After entering the co-ordination agreement, there is a one-year period before the OCN child welfare law would come into effect.

Assuming everything is on schedule, the new law will be in effect and OCN will have its own child welfare system running by October 2021, a year after the co-ordination agreement.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation has nearly 6,200 members on and off reserve. There are 195 OCN children and youth currently in CFS care, according to the band.

About the Author

Nicholas Frew is an online reporter based in Winnipeg. Hailing from Newfoundland, Frew moved to Halifax to attend journalism school before moving to Winnipeg. Prior to joining CBC Manitoba, Frew interned at the Winnipeg Free Press. Story idea? Email at nick.frew@cbc.ca

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