Ottawa transfers control of children in care to Saskatchewan First Nation

Ottawa gives control of kids

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a historic moment as control over children in care was transferred Tuesday to a Saskatchewan First Nation for the first time under federal legislation.

Trudeau was visiting the Cowessess First Nation and signed an agreement with Chief Cadmus Delorme and Premier Scott Moe.

"No kids finally will be removed from the communities they are a part of. That is the goal," Trudeau said. "Never again should kids be taken from their homes, families and communities."

The legislation which allows jurisdiction and control of child and family services to be returned to a First Nation was passed in 2019 and came into force the following year.

Trudeau said First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children should have the opportunity to grow up with their families.

The federal government has said the legislation will reduce the number of Indigenous children in care by affirming the inherent rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

Cowessess is also the site of a former residential school where, last month, ground-penetrating radar detected a potential 751 unmarked graves. The Marieval Indian Residential School, about 160 kilometres east of Regina, was built in 1899 by Roman Catholic missionaries.

The federal government said in a new release that the emotions experienced in the community with the finding of the graves has been a reminder of the importance of supporting First Nations jurisdiction over the well-being of their children.

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended residential schools between the 1860s and 1996.

"Today is a historical day because we never gave up our sovereignty of our children," said Delorme.

Cowessess is one of several Indigenous groups that have notified Indigenous Services Canada that they intend to handle their own child and family services.

Under the law, Indigenous groups must give notice of their intent to exercise jurisdiction or request a three-way agreement with the federal and provincial governments.

The groups are to be allowed to develop their own child-welfare laws or bring in traditional ones. Either would prevail over federal and provincial laws.

"Every Indigenous child deserves the best chance and we believe this will benefit their children to have the opportunity to grow up connected to their culture, language, heritage, and community," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in a news release.

Indigenous Services Canada said that as of June 8 the department had received notices to exercise jurisdiction from 38 Indigenous governing bodies representing over 100 Indigenous groups and communities.

Eighteen discussion tables have been established, including the one with Cowessess First Nation.

There is no funding attached to the legislation. Tuesday's announcement did include a financial commitment from the federal government of $38.7 million over the next two years.

The province will continue to provide protection services for Cowessess children off reserve until the community's own program is fully implemented.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 Saskatchewan First Nations, announced last year that it wanted $360 million from Ottawa over five years to apply the legislation on reserves.

Delorme said the jurisdiction of children in care was removed from Cowessess in 1951. The First Nation last March ratified its own laws asserting inherent rights for children and families in need of help.

Delorme said Tuesday’s agreement with the two levels of government is a transition plan to assure the transfer is professional and at the right pace for the First Nation.

The extensive overhaul of Indigenous child welfare has faced some criticism since it was brought in for a lack of certain details or funding commitments.

Provincial ministers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — where there are many Indigenous children in care — have expressed concern over the law, in particular how it will apply to urban Indigenous children or for those with ties to multiple communities.

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