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Grand Chief Ed John called for a new approach that will prevent First Nations children from being taken into government care when safety is not an issue.

Bernardo De Niz/The Globe and Mail

First Nations communities in British Columbia need to be empowered to take care of their children to keep them out of government care, a newly appointed senior adviser on the issue says.

Grand Chief Ed John was appointed on Wednesday to a six-month position advising the Minister of Children and Family Development on how to find care for more aboriginal children and youth outside of government. The appointment follows several high-profile cases of abuse or neglect of children, many of them aboriginal, in government care.

"In our own communities, there are culturally based approaches where people can take care of our children. Can we utilize those?" Mr. John said in an interview. "How do we provide an effective legal framework in our own communities without having the provincial government come in and take the measures they usually do?"

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Mr. John called the rising percentage of First Nations children in government care "very significant."

"I know the sense of hopelessness and despair it raises in our communities where the child is taken from the family, even for temporary care," he said. "But it's even more dramatic when the child is taken for permanent care."

Mr. John, who was a children and family development minister for a previous NDP government, called for a new approach that will prevent First Nations children from being taken into government care when safety is not an issue.

While he had no specific answers on that point, he said he would begin looking for them. He said he expected it will be costly, but conceded "I have no clue" exactly how much.

Mr. John will take on this new assignment in addition to his role as a member of the political executive of the First Nations Summit task group.

Several recent cases involving First Nations children in care were highlighted in reports by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth.

Earlier this year, Ms. Turpel-Lafond released a scathing review of the overdose death of a 19-year-old woman named Paige in April, 2013. The young woman's troubled life included drug use, police encounters and violence – much of it in government care and the foster system.

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Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report highlighted a pattern of "persistent professional indifference" and prompted calls from First Nations leaders for change.

On Wedneday, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she welcomed Mr. John as an adviser to the government and the chance to work with him.

However, she said no concrete measures are in sight to address shrinking federal and provincial support to aboriginal families and youth over the past decade.

"One could think the government has appointed him to take the headache away from them, and I am going to be very active with Ed, to say, 'Ed. You can't take this headache away from government. They have got to own it,'" she said.

"I saw the government press release saying he's going to reduce the number of kids in care. Is he going to be going out to do the job that social workers just can't do every day because there aren't enough of them?"

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said in a statement that one in seven aboriginal children in B.C. will be in care at some time. "Both the Premier and I know that's not okay. We need to better support these young people, and I am confident Grand Chief John will help us find more permanent homes, loving families and lasting cultural connections."

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Mr. John, hereditary chief of the Tl'azt'en Nation, said the Premier's Office approached him in June, and he talked to many First Nations leaders before deciding to take the job. "I am sure they could have approached other people, but they approached me," he said. "I did have a choice, but I chose to do it. No one [said,] 'Take it or take it.' I made the decision that maybe there's something here we can do."

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