How Indigenous people are rebuilding child welfare to lift up the whole family

Cowessess First Nation is working to change a system that critics say has notoriously harmed Indigenous children and families, first with residential schools, then with the Sixties Scoop and ongoing through child and family services and foster care.

Cowessess First Nation putting culture, community at centre of new family welfare system

A silhouette of a young child holding their parent's hand.
A child and parent. (NadyaEugene/Shutterstock)

Originally published on March 1, 2022. 

In their efforts to heal the damage done to Indigenous kids by Canada's foster care systems, members of Cowessess First Nation are building their own child welfare program rooted in the idea of keeping a "home fire" burning to connect children to their culture and community. 

"[The home fire] doesn't necessarily mean bringing all the children back home, but it … starts with that culture, feeling the land, remembering who you are and where you come from," said Nicole Cook, the associate CEO of the Chief Red Bear Children's Lodge, the new Cowessess-run child and family services agency on the Saskatchewan reserve. 

The community was in the spotlight last year after experts found what's believed to be 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Residential School. It's the first to make use of Bill C-92, federal legislation passed in June 2019, which gives jurisdiction over child welfare back to First Nations. 

Cowessess is working to change a system that critics say has notoriously harmed Indigenous children and families, first with residential schools, then with the Sixties Scoop and since then through child and family services and foster care. While Indigenous children make up only 7.7 percent of the child population in Canada, Statistics Canada data shows that 52.2 percent of children in foster care are Indigenous. 

In January the federal government announced an agreement to spend $40 billion to reform child welfare on reserves and compensate those who've been harmed. Between this agreement and Bill C-92, advocates now have more tools to repair or rebuild child welfare.

Nicole Cook is the associate CEO of Chief Red Bear Children's Lodge on Cowessess First Nation. (Courtney Markewich/CBC News)

Cook is a member of Cowessess, but didn't grow up in her community or with her Cree culture. She discovered the grounding effects of her own "home fire" when she came home and reconnected to the land as an adult. 

"When I was able to walk the land that my kookum [grandmother] lived on, [it] had this huge impact on me," she said. "And I think that's what we need to build [our work] out of."

Cook is part of a growing team of nurses and early childhood educators who are starting from scratch to create a new system for Cowessess children and their families.

That team includes Eva Coles, who became CEO of Chief Red Bear Lodge in 2020 after more than three decades working in child and family services for First Nation and Métis organizations. She said the transfer of jurisdiction from the federal government to Cowessess gives the First Nation the same powers that, for instance, a province would have. 

"This is the inherent right of Cowessess to do this," she said. "We're now just transferring everything over that … was always ours."

Family care system

In the year that the organization has been in operation, Coles and her team have been able to work with families to keep everyone together when there's been the need for child welfare involvement, she said. Families are offered counselling, life-skills training and other supports, including the time and space to sleep and get some good food in their bellies before talking about what's going on.

They're trying to create a family care system, not just a child welfare system — and it seems to be working.

"[Even though] we're not even [at] our first year anniversary yet, there are no children in care on the Cowessess reserve at this moment in time," Coles said. "It's zero."

Dancers perform at a powwow during a Reconciliation Day event in Cowessess First Nation on Thursday, the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

They're also trying to identify and connect with as many Cowessess children living off reserve as they can. Coles said they believe most are living elsewhere in Saskatchewan or the other prairie provinces, but some are farther from home. 

"We're getting to know each child, one by one and figuring out what their needs [are]," Coles said. "So some children … just need their genealogy. They don't know who they're related to. Other children need someone to just give them a call, sometimes a picture of the reserve."

However, Coles and her team did identify a small group of children in New Brunswick who she says didn't have the support they needed. On April 1, 2021, the first day they were able to assert jurisdiction, they brought those children back to Cowessess.

"We were able to just get them on the plane with their grandpa and get them home and straight into grandma and grandpa's house," she said. "It was the least and smallest thing that we could do to start this off."

Helping parents in Winnipeg's North End

Though Cowessess is the first Indigenous community to make use of Bill C-92, elsewhere in Canada other organizations and individuals are also working to improve the experiences of those who come into contact with the system.

Mary Burton is one of those advocates. The Winnipeg resident is a Sixties Scoop survivor and the guardian of grandchildren who were briefly in the foster care system. 

Burton spent eight years in foster homes as a child, and the bullying, threats and insults she experienced led her to become a strong voice for parents. 

"I had to put up with being told by the agency that I'm going to end up growing up being a prostitute and [I'll be] hooked on drugs and alcohol, because all Indian girls are good for is getting high and drunk," Burton said. 

Mary Burton, right, is the executive director of Fearless R2W, a Winnipeg group that works to support families involved in the child and family services system. She's pictured here in June 2021 with two of her grandchildren and one of her step-children. Burton is currently the sole guardian of her three grandchildren, who were briefly in CFS care until she fought to get them back. (John Einarson/CBC)

"I think they were trying to break my spirit. But … what they don't realize is they made me stronger. I vowed that day that I would prove them wrong. That my community, my people are better than that."

Burton is now the executive director of Fearless R2W, an organization that helps parents and families reunite with their kids in care in Winnipeg's North End — a neighbourhood known to have a high child apprehension rate. The organization works to advocate on behalf of parents and educate them on how to navigate the child welfare system. 

Burton said she's seen a lot of good programming come and go in Manitoba, but that it'll take reliable federal funding to create long-term, sustainable programming to address addictions and housing issues. 

'Children in the centre of the ring'

Darlene Keeper of Little Grand Rapids First Nation, a fly-in community in northeast Manitoba, aged out of care after spending most of her life in foster homes, where she'd experienced emotional and physical abuse. 

"[I'd] get smacked in the face or whatever, you know, nosebleed or whatever. Just because [I would be] running my mouth, as they say,"  Keeper said. 

Although she got good grades and had success in school sports, there was no one to acknowledge or help her make something of her strengths. "I just really wish that I had somebody, you know, in my corner cheering me on."

Darlene Keeper, from Little Grand Rapids First Nation in Manitoba, on her 28th birthday: 'a decade after age of a majority, a decade of teaching myself the skills to transition from surviving to living.' (Submitted by Darlene Keeper)

She struggled with depression, substance abuse and homelessness. But now, at 28, she's earning a social work degree, working toward a goal of helping children in foster care. 

"Right now … kids are treated like garbage when, traditionally, Indigenous culture had children in the centre of the ring, where everybody else's life surrounded and protected those children," she said. 

"I want to be part of the change to repair that."

Written by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing. Produced by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing and Kim Kaschor.