Three northern Alberta First Nations have signed an agreement with the federal and provincial governments to be responsible for their own child welfare systems.
The chiefs of Loon River First Nation, Lubicon First Nation and Peerless Trout First Nation gathered Tuesday with members of their communities and representatives of the federal and provincial governments to celebrate the agreement.
“Today there is hope, hope that we can begin to truly heal intergenerational trauma that has impacted our children for too long,” said Chief Gilbert Okemow of Peerless Trout First Nation, which is about 500 kilometres north of Edmonton.
“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 and their culture for far too long. Starting today, we are changing that.”
Chief Ivan Sawan of the nearby Loon River First Nation said it’s a huge step forward for the communities.
“I’ve seen the cries with our people, I’ve seen mothers embrace their children,” he said. “Our families struggled so many years.
“Today is a brand new day for us.”
Ottawa passed An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis Children, Youth and Families in 2020 with a focus on prevention so families can receive support to remain together.
The agreement signed Tuesday with the three First Nations implements Awaak Wiyasiwewin, which is Cree for children’s law, and gives child and family services control and jurisdiction to the First Nations.
“We’ve always had our children’s laws before 500 years ago,” said Chief Billy Joe Laboucan of Lubicon First Nation. “Now we have the opportunity with this legislation to be able to go back to those laws so that all of the community raises that child.”
Members of each of the First Nations voted in favour of the move last November.
The agreement includes transferring nearly $150 million over five years to the First Nations from the federal government.
Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said it’s important to return inherent child welfare rights to the First Nations.
“It has been taken away from you by successive governments, by at times religious institutions and it’s something that has always been there – the right to take care, control custody of your own children in the right way, preserve the language, the education,” he said.
Miller said it’s the first trilateral agreement in Alberta and one of the first in Canada. Another, he said, was signed Tuesday with a First Nation in Ontario.
“I hope this rhythm continues not only across Alberta, but across the rest of Canada, where it actually needs to go faster and faster,” he said. “I think you are blazing a trail.”
Mickey Amery, minister of children’s services in Alberta, said it’s a monumental agreement.
“It’s a great privilege to be here and to join in signing Alberta’s first trilateral co-ordination agreement,” he said.
“This agreement represents a shared path toward true and meaningful reconciliation but most importantly a mutual dedication for the safety and well-being of our children.”
A bilateral agreement was signed between the federal government at Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, in February. That agreement did not involve the province.