Calls for child welfare overhaul filter into Sask. after Tina Fontaine's death in Man.

As the death of Tina Fontaine leads to calls for an overhaul of the child welfare system in Manitoba, a similar push is gaining momentum in Saskatchewan.

81% of 5,000 children in care in Sask. are Indigenous

Manitoba's child welfare system has been criticized since Tina Fontaine's body was found in the Red River in 2014. (Kalina Laframboise/CBC)

As the death of Tina Fontaine leads to calls for an overhaul of the child welfare system in Manitoba, a similar push is gaining momentum in Saskatchewan.

On Aug 17, 2014, Fontaine was found dead in Winnipeg's Red River. Fontaine was originally from Sagkeeng First Nation, but had been in the care of Manitoba's child welfare system at the time of her death.

Calls for drastic change in Manitoba's child welfare system have been consistent and loud since Fontaine's body was discovered. In Saskatchewan, similar whispers are getting louder.

There are approximately 5,000 children in care in Saskatchewan, and about 4,000 of them are Indigenous.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations has been in talks with the Ministry of Social Services in Saskatchewan since October — when Second Vice-Chief David Pratt was elected to improve the situation for young Indigenous people in the care of the province. The collaboration is in its infancy, according to Pratt.
David Pratt is the second vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and manages the child welfare file. (Brad Bellegarde/CBC News)

"There's a lot of receiving homes open in Saskatchewan and we want greater accountability in terms of what's going on in those homes, who's staffing those homes, if there's any cultural component happening in those homes," he said.

"I think we need to work together as partners."

Pratt has been encouraged by the readiness of federal ministers Jane Philpott, of Indigenous Services, and Carolyn Bennett, of Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, to focus on prevention of children having to go into care, rather than band-aid solutions.

But Pratt said the province has some work to do.

Here in Saskatchewan, we have a lot of work to get done.- FSIN Vice-Chief David Pratt on Saskatchewan's child welfare system

"A lot of times the government comes to us with the jurisdictional song and dance. We know the constitution. We know what Section 91 states, that responsibility [for] Indians falls under the federal government. But we've got to look at what regions like Ontario are doing."

In Ontario, federal and provincial governments work with Ontario Chiefs as a tripartite to work toward better outcomes for children in care.

"In Nova Scotia, the Mi'kmaq actually helped draft the child welfare legislation. Why can't we do that in Saskatchewan? Let's open up that legislation."

Pratt believes that groups like the FSIN have solutions, if only various levels of government would listen.

Recognizing trauma, heritage

Part of improving outcomes for Indigenous children who are unable to live with their parents is connecting them with their home communities.

"Nine hundred of these children are not registered with their community, so we'd like to work as partners with the ministry to get them back registered," said Pratt

"It'll help them with their identity. Learning who they are is part of a healthy young individual."

A young Indigenous person's identity, though, can often involve a history linked to residential schools and intergenerational trauma, and the necessity of navigating colonial systems.

"Our treaty partners in Saskatchewan, non-Indigenous people, need to realize our history and that we're not going to find solutions unless we work together on them," said Pratt.

Tina Fontaine's body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on Aug. 17, 2014. It was wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down with rocks. (Tina Fontaine/Facebook)
Within the province's social services, there has been a conscious shift over the past few years to be more sensitive to the needs of young Indigenous people, and to connect them with their First Nations and families.

"For many Indigenous families we work with, they might identify elders, community leaders, or agencies like community-based organizations that are Indigenous-run, or they might identify their home First Nation, so we'd connect with them in developing the case plan," said Tobie Eberhardt, executive director of community services at the Ministry of Social Services.

"It would be around the family identifying what their needs are, who they would see as their natural supports."

Every child is also subject to a strength and needs assessment when they come to the ministry for help.

Most often, children are then placed with a family member, or at the very least, with someone familiar to them.

"Sixty per cent of children in Saskatchewan are placed with extended family, or significant people in their lives," said Eberhardt.