'One day there will be no children in care,' says Cowessess Chief after historic child welfare deal inked
Agreement signed in ceremony on Saskatchewan First Nation Tuesday
WARNING: This story contains distressing details
Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan is the first Indigenous group in Canada to ink an agreement with Ottawa for federal funding of locally controlled child welfare services since the Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families came into force last year.
But Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme is already looking to the future.
"One day there will be no children in care," he said at a ceremony on the reserve marking the pact Tuesday.
"[I'm] 39 nine years old and I hope that happens in my lifetime. But we have a lot of work to do."
The act allows for First Nations to assume authority over local child welfare systems under so-called co-ordination agreements and paves the way for children in care to remain in their home communities.
Cowessess First Nation is the first Indigenous group in Canada to sign such an agreement. The deal also comes with $38 million in funding over the next two years to support the band's further implementation of its own child welfare system, which actually began operating in April.
"Across the country, we are working with other First Nations to reach similar agreements," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Delorme and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe for the ceremony.
As of last month, Indigenous Services Canada received requests from 38 bodies representing 100 Indigenous groups and communities who want to follow in the same footsteps as Cowessess First Nation, according to a news release.
Eighteen formal discussion groups focused on signing future agreements are now underway.
Trudeau did not cite a goal or timeline for finalizing those pacts.
'Intergenerational trauma is very real'
Cowessess has not had decision-making power over children in care since it was stripped of it in 1951, according to a letter distributed by Delorme on Monday.
More than 80 per cent of children in care in Saskatchewan are Indigenous, according to a 2018 children's advocate report.
That began to change with 2019's passage An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families, federal legislation aimed at reducing the number of youth in care and allowing communities to create their own child-welfare systems.
Cowessess did that in 2020, when it asserted its inherent rights over its children and families.
While noting the recent discovery of 751 unmarked graves associated with the former Marieval Indian Residential School, Trudeau said his government has been working with Cowessess on the child welfare funding agreement for years.
Moe said it's no surprise Cowessess is the first Indigenous community in Canada to reach such an agreement.
"This is a progressive community [that] leads in so many other areas," he said.
Mia Buckles, chair of the Cowessess Youth Council, joined other speakers in linking the legacy of residential schools with the current situation of children in care.
"First Nations intergenerational trauma is very real," she said. "I recognize that in my life and others lives around me. It plays a huge role in why so many of our people end up in foster care, incarcerated, addicted and uneducated."
Buckles said the transition home, Chief Red Bear Children's Lodge, will work proactively to prevent children from ending up in care in the first place.
Funding to address root causes also needed: advocate
Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, applauded Tuesday's agreement.
"The closer authorities are to the children, the better the outcomes are going to be, because they'll be able to see their needs and monitor those needs and respond to them over time and culturally appropriate ways," she said.
But Blackstock cautioned that federal funding is also needed to address the underlying socio-economic factors that land Indigenous children in care in the first place.
Those factors include poverty, housing, substance abuse and mental health issues related to residential school trauma, she said.
"Unless the federal government is also announcing sufficient funding for that, then what we'll have is a child welfare program — a quality one, culturally appropriate — sitting atop this raging fire of inequality that is going to disable the community from being able to realize the goals they wish to realize with these kids."
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
with files from Alexander Quon