Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The second First Nations’ children's act has been implemented in Alberta.
On Tuesday, April 11, the three northern nations of Loon River, Lubicon and Peerless Trout (collectively referred to as the Founding First Nations) signed a coordination agreement with Canada and Alberta that brought into force Awaśak Wiyasiwêwin (Children’s Law). It marked the first trilateral agreement on this initiative in the province.
Awaśak Wiyasiwêwin gives the Founding First Nations control of and jurisdiction over the delivery of their child and family services.
“The current child welfare system just wasn’t designed for the First Nations peoples, and it has caused too many children to be removed from their homes, their families, their communities, their culture for far too long,” said Chief Gilbert Okemow of Peerless Trout First Nation. “Starting today we are changing that.”
In 2020, Ottawa passed Bill C-92, An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families.
The first step in that process is for First Nations to create a law to govern child welfare within their communities. In 2021, the three nations each voted overwhelmingly in favour of Awaśak Wiyasiwêwin. The law focuses on keeping children in the community with their families and not on apprehension.
Canada has committed $149.4 million over five years to the implementation of and service delivery model for Awaśak Wiyasiwêwin.
The funding can’t be found in the direct budgetary allocations that were released this March when the federal government tabled its 2023-2024 budget, admits Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller.
Miller attended the ceremony at Peerless Lake and signed on behalf of Canada.
“The reality is we made this commitment to communities through Bill C-92 and the ratification of the coordination agreement. When we get down to the financial arrangements in the fiscal framework, we go to Cabinet and get the numbers that are required,” said Miller in an interview with Windspeaker.com.
As for this agreement spanning five years, which will see at least one federal election in that time frame, Miller says the financial commitment is solid.
“That’s always the case with the reality of any of the agreements we sign, that those are commitments of Canada and if any government violates them, they are subject to not only general public shaming but quite immediate court action,” said Miller.
While $150 million over five years is a “significant amount,” Miller says the progress of the work undertaken by the Founding First Nations will be evaluated to ensure they can successfully bring their children home and care for them.
Miller would not confirm if that meant increasing funding within those five years if the nations experience difficulty in meeting their goals. He said he would be speculating and that’s “always dangerous in politics.”
“These are discussions that will remain with the communities. Obviously, the people who negotiated this deal knew what they were getting into and you have to respect that,” he said.
While Alberta signed the coordination agreement as well, Children’s Services Minister Mickey Amery did not announce specific dollar figures that were part of the province’s commitment.
In a statement, Amery said that the province had provided a grant, along with “substantial resources” to transition planning.
Alberta was not a signatory when Louis Bull Tribe enacted its Asikiw Mostos O'Pikinawasiwin children’s law in February. In that bilateral agreement, Canada committed $124.8 million over two years.
A request from Windspeaker.com for Amery to explain why his government did not partner with Louis Bull Tribe went unanswered. He did, however, say that Alberta is making progress with several First Nations to develop coordination agreements.
Miller says the bilateral agreement with Louis Bull Tribe “is the best alternative in a scenario where provinces aren’t at the table.”
He says engaging with provinces is a “recurring challenge we faced across the country.”
However, of the seven coordinating agreements that exist with First Nations, the only bilateral agreement is in Alberta.
Miller points out that Alberta joined Quebec and the Northwest Territories in challenging C-92 in front of the Supreme Court of Canada. They are arguing that providing services for families and children is provincial and territorial jurisdiction and that the federal government is overstepping.
“They’re taking some very, I find, offensive positions towards what they believe to be the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Miller.
There are no coordination agreements in place in either Quebec or N.W.T.
Miller says its imperative that provinces come to the table because children are taken into care through agencies operated by the provinces.
“It does leave a gap there and it leaves the potential to have conflicts of laws and cases before courts, which in the meantime have children in very precarious positions, often not in their home communities,” he said.
Earlier this week, Canada signed another coordination agreement committing $93.8 million over four years to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation in Ontario to implement Dibenjikewin Onaakonikewin. Negotiations for a funding agreement are underway between KI and the province, said the Ontario government.
That marks the second agreement that includes Ontario, with the first coordination agreement signed in March 2022 with Wabaseemoong Independent Nations, with Canada committing $340.8 million over 10 years to implement Wabaseemoong’s Customary Care Code.
Two other trilateral coordination agreements have been signed already in 2023: with Splatsin in British Columbia for $136.2 million over 10 years ; and Peguis First Nation in Manitoba for $319.3 million over three years.
The first coordination agreement was signed in July 2021 with Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan receiving $38.7 million for more than two years to implement the Miyo Pimatisowin Act.
“Things are moving at a pace (we) haven’t seen in a long time,” said Miller.
Meanwhile the federal government remains at the table with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Chiefs of Ontario, and Cindy Blackstock, executive director with First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, working on long-term reform for the child welfare system and Jordan’s Principle, says Miller. Canada has committed just under $20 billion towards those long-term reforms to be paid out over five years.
The settlement is the result of action that began in 2007 with a complaint filed by AFN and the Caring Society with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
“Reforming the system is something that’s going to take some time,” said Miller, although he stresses that money is rolling out as the work is being done.
There is an urgency to completing the reforms and ensuring they’re effective, he adds, both to do right for children and to wrap-up before a possible election, as the Trudeau Liberals hold a minority government.
“We want this concluded as quickly as everybody else does, but I think there’s some real elements that need to be secured before we can sit comfortably and say this is done,” said Miller.
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