Indigenous

Gitanmaax members stop child from being taken from community by social workers

A group of Gitxsan matriarchs, hereditary chiefs, elected chiefs and community members blocked B.C. social workers from apprehending one of their children Saturday.

Removals by child welfare 'no different than the residential school or the Sixties Scoop,' says chief

Hereditary chiefs and elected leaders from the Gitanmaax band stopped a social worker from apprehending a child in the community on Saturday. (Kai Nagata)

A group of Gitxsan matriarchs, hereditary chiefs, elected chiefs and community members blocked B.C. social workers from apprehending one of their children Saturday.

"We knew what we were doing was right and we weren't going to back down," said Tracey Woods, the elected chief of the Gitanmaax Band, about 350 kilometres northwest of Prince George, B.C.  

"We weren't going to permit [B.C.'s Ministry of Child and Family Development] social workers to remove this [child]," and put them on a flight to Ontario, she said.

Woods said people from the Gitxsan Nation were notified Saturday night that a scheduled apprehension by the ministry was about to take place. 

The group gathered outside of the home where the child, who they say is six years old, was staying and stopped social workers from apprehending them.

"As a council, we have made reference to this being no different than the residential school or the Sixties Scoop, where the MCFD comes in and removes the child from family and relocates them to unfamiliar territory," said Woods.

Gitanmaax Band Chief Tracey Woods said children that get taken into the child welfare system often get lost in big cities. She wants to ensure that young people are retaining their language and culture. (Submitted by Tracey Woods)

Woods, who is a mother and grandmother, has been the chief of the Gitanmaax band for four years.

She said the Gitxsan are a matrilineal society and that the child's mother is a member of the Gitanmaax band.

"It's . . . about keeping our children from being taken from our communities, from our families," said Woods.

"We asserted our authority and jurisdiction with the band council on our reserve land," said Woods. 

In an emailed response to CBC News, the MCFD wrote it was unable to comment on matters involving specific children, but they "recognize the importance of keeping a child connected to their family, including siblings and extended family, and to their First Nations, Métis or Inuit communities."

Woods said the child is safe and that it's important for children to stay in their community so they can learn their culture and languages.

"[They've] had a chance to reconnect with [their] maternal family. [They've] had an opportunity to make some new friends. There's been huge support from the community for this little [child]," she said.

'Taking a stand'

The incident on Saturday was a co-ordinated effort between elected band leaders and Gitxsan house groups, hereditary chiefs and matriarchs.

A Gitxsan house group or wilp is composed of one or more families. All house groups collectively make up the Gitxsan Nation.

"The reason we're taking a stand — because enough is enough," said Kolin Sutherland-Wilson, spokesperson for the Git'luuhl'um'hetxwit house of the Gitxsan Nation.

"Our house, the Git'luuhl'um'hetxwit, along with the Gitanmaax band council have come together . . .  both hereditary and elected, in order to ensure that one of our children remains here in the community."

On Monday, Sutherland-Wilson and Git'luuhl'um'hetxwit house members organized a rally outside of the MCFD office in Hazelton, B.C.

Sutherland-Wilson said the band and the Gitxsan Nation are fighting for control of their own affairs when it comes to child welfare legislation in their communities.

"Indigenous jurisdiction over Indigenous children should be a no brainer at this point," said Sutherland-Wilson.

"We're all tired of having to fight to ensure the well-being of our children… we're long past the age of Canada coming in and telling us we're too uncivilized or too unorganized."

At a news conference Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about child welfare system reform and he pointed to Bill C-92, legislation that was co-developed with First Nations leaders, under which Indigenous communities can reclaim jurisdiction over child welfare.

"We are in discussion with communities . . . to make sure that we are able to give them the resources, and they are able to set up the right framework for them to keep their kids safe and supported properly," said Trudeau. 

"And we continue to work with the communities at their pace as they develop a system that is right for them, because this is a system that no one can afford to get wrong." 

Woods said they are are waiting for meeting dates to be provided "so that we could have more discussions about Gitanmaax having more control."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

with files from Kate Partridge

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