Muskeg Lake Cree Nation moves forward with plan to take control of community's child and family services

The Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan told the federal government it would take steps to create its own child and family services programming last summer. The parties involved have now agreed to make that happen.

Indigenous children in Sask. First Nation need 'love from family and community,' says elder and matriarch

The Muskeg Lake Cree Nation is looking to put families first as it takes over management of child and family services programs in the community. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Last summer, the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan told the federal government it intended to take control over its own child and family services.

Now, the parties involved are moving toward making that goal a reality. 

In a Thursday statement, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation Chief Kelly Wolfe said a draft law has been developed which establishes the terms of reference for a kinship council, composed of family heads who will inform the community in shaping its new service. 

"Even during this pandemic, when our families have been under pressure and fear about today and the future, our main concern is our children," Wolfe said. 

"We have to move forward and bring our laws, values and practices into a new form of law that will support Muskeg Lake Cree Nation families."

The move comes after the federal government's Bill C-92 — officially known as An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families — was passed in 2019.

The legislation aims to reduce the number of youth in care, and enables First Nations communities to create their own child welfare systems to bring and keep their youth home.

Wolfe said people in Muskeg Lake — about 95 kilometres north of Saskatoon — felt that none of the community's children should be in the foster care of a stranger in Saskatchewan, or anywhere else in Canada. 

The First Nation's government, he said, will work to create programming based on Cree customs and traditions, and the values of wâhkôtowin — or kinship — and miyo-ohpikihâwasowin, which translates to "good child rearing."

Those values will "ensure that our children are cared for in a culturally appropriate way," said Wolfe.

In a news release earlier this week, the federal minister of Indigenous Services said the government supports Muskeg Lake Cree Nation's approach and looks forward to the next step — co-ordinating an agreement between the First Nation and the government of Saskatchewan. 

"Indigenous peoples have an inherent right to self-determination to decide for themselves which policies and programs will best protect vulnerable children in their communities," Marc Miller said in the statement.

"This Indigenous-led approach will improve the health and well-being of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation children and youth."

Muskeg Lake Cree Nation's news release said since declaring its intentions, the community has worked to identify the key steps it needs to take to exercise its full jurisdiction over child and family services.

Janice Colquhoun, the government of Saskatchewan's executive director of Indigenous services with the Ministry of Social Services, also supported Muskeg Lake's efforts.

"We respect the intent of the legislation overall where Indigenous children and families are supported by their communities and within their own customs and cultural traditions," she said.

The province's focus, Colquhoun's statement said, is working in collaboration with the First Nation to support a safe transition of service.

In a statement in the news release, Muskeg Lake elder and matriarch Nora Ledoux celebrated the move.

"It's about time something was done about those children taken away from their families and communities," Ledoux said in the translation of her statement, which was presented in Cree in the release.

"They are put in non-Native homes and provided with shelter and food. What they need is love from family and community. That is the nourishment they need."

As of last December, the federal government said 26 Indigenous governing bodies — representing a total of 64 groups or communities in Canada — had submitted a notice to exercise their jurisdiction in relation to child and family services.

With files from Olivia Stefanovich and John Paul Tasker