How Cowessess First Nation's historic child welfare agreement with Canada and Saskatchewan works

Here's how Canada's first co-ordination agreement works and what that means for Cowessess First Nation.

Cowessess First Nation will have complete decision-making power over its children and youth

Cowessess First Nation retakes jurisdiction of child welfare

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. After 70 years, Cowessess First Nation is retaking jurisdiction of children in care in an agreement solidified with visits from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe. It comes weeks after 715 unmarked graves were found near a former residential school in the community.

Cowessess First Nation reclaimed its inherent right to look after its own children with the signing of a co-ordination agreement with Saskatchewan and the federal government on Tuesday. 

The historic signing — the first of its kind in Canada — was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Scott Moe and Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme. 

The ceremony, which started with a powwow and ended with a victory dance, left those in the community feeling hopeful. 

"After years of our children being taken and separated from their families, culture and, ultimately, their senses of themselves, we are one step closer to breaking one of the many generational curses that bind us," said Mia Buckles, chair of the Cowessess Youth Council, during Tuesday's event. 

Explaining the co-ordination agreement

Cowessess First Nation will have complete decision-making power over its children and youth. 

For the first time in 70 years, this jurisdiction will be recognized and resourced by the federal and provincial governments. The feds have committed $38.7 million to help with the implementation of Cowessess's child welfare system.

From coast to coast to coast, the community has the final say on whether a Cowessess child is removed from their home, as opposed to a judge or social services making that decision. 

"In Saskatchewan, 86 per cent of children in care are First Nations, and 150 of them are from Cowessess," Buckles said. "It's their time to receive the opportunity to come home and heal with their families, on their own land through a holistic approach."

Chair of the Cowessess Youth Council Mia Buckles spoke at Tuesday's signing of the co-ordination agreement. (CBC)

Chief Red Bear Lodge, the community's child and family services agency, will work to prevent children from going into care. The agency provides a safe living environment and access to their culture, Buckles said. 

"We are the leaders in a long-fought battle for the rights and the comforts of our people. Soon after us, I hope other First Nation communities will follow us and fight to gain the ability to care for and assist families in a happy and healthy life."

Indigenous Services Canada has received notices and requests to exercise the same jurisdiction from 38 Indigenous governing bodies representing more than 100 Indigenous groups and communities. From this, 18 co-ordination agreement discussion tables have been established. Cowessess is the first to have its agreement finalized. 

The Cowessess First Nation became the first Indigenous group in Canada to have an agreement with Ottawa for federal funding to locally control their child welfare services. A ceremony was held to mark the occasion, including traditional dance. (Matt Howard/CBC)

History in the making

In March 2020, Cowessess passed its own child welfare legislation, called the Miyo Pimatisowan Act, which means "striving for a better life" in Cree. 

Unlike colonial laws, the act begins with a prayer, "because it's the Cowessess approach," said Chief Cadmus Delorme. 

The act was passed under Bill C-92, which empowers Indigenous communities to reclaim jurisdiction over their child welfare. The federal bill was written in response to the first five calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which focus on child welfare. 

"This is a step along the journey, but it's one that was identified by Indigenous communities and quite rightly as being a priority," Prime Minister Trudeau said Tuesday.

WATCH | Work to be done on healing and growing for Cowessess First Nation: 

Chief Cadmus Delorme reflects on new child welfare agreement with federal and provincial governments

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Cowessess in south eastern Saskatchewan on Tuesday.

Addressing systemic racism within government institutions

Leaders from Cowessess and the federal and provincial governments met for years to discuss the agreement. 

Cowessess chaired every meeting and led every discussion, Delorme said. 

He said First Nations must exercise their rights in order to decolonize legislation and move forward. 

"We're not shareholders or stakeholders, we're rights holders, which are inherent to us and our children yet unborn," Delorme said.

"This country has many legislations. Some work. Some... the machine is so big, you can't change it, and so this is where Indigenous people as rights holders can create their own laws in a true co-relation as Treaty was meant to be."

Delorme said this is how you address systemic racism moving forward.

"You either work with what you got, or you start working to create laws where we can all move together."

Trudeau acknowledged systemic racism exists in government institutions, putting Indigenous peoples at a disadvantage. 

"The sequencing will be determined with partnership, but this is a long path to walk," Trudeau said. 

Following the signing of the co-ordination agreement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toured the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School on Cowessess First Nation, where 751 unmarked graves were discovered. At one of the graves he kneeled for almost a minute, leaving a teddy bear with a checkered bow tie at the flag. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

He added the co-ordination agreement is just one step toward reconciliation.

"The ability to make this announcement today is proof we didn't just wake up a few weeks ago and say, 'Oh we should really do something for Cowessess because of the tragedy we've seen,'" Trudeau said, referencing the recent findings of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

"We've been working with Cadmus for years now, with Indigenous leadership for years now, on the hard work on reconciliation, so we can stand here today. It's an important thing, but there are many more important things to work on."

With files from CBC's Afternoon Edition