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Wet’suwet’en Nation makes agreement to reclaim child-welfare services

Freda Huson, middle, greets hereditary chiefs from all five clans along with staff of the Office of the Wet'suwet'en at the Unist'ot'en bridge checkpoint in northern British Columbia, September 3, 2015. The Wet'suwet'en Nation recently struck an agreement with the provincial government to reclaim child-welfare services in its territory, saying the pact should give vulnerable young people a sense of belonging in their culture.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A B.C. First Nation has struck an agreement with the provincial government to reclaim child-welfare services in its territory, saying the pact should give vulnerable young people a sense of belonging in their culture.

The recently announced agreement is between the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs, the elected chiefs of the Hagwilget Village Council and Moricetown Band, and the provincial government. (Hagwilget and Moricetown are two of six bands that make up the Wet'suwet'en Nation; the other four co-ordinate child welfare through a different tribal group.)

The approach would depart from the delegated-agency model, in which the province appoints child-welfare services to aboriginal agencies that are bound by provincial policies and legislation.

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Under the agreement, the parties are to come up with programs and services that reflect traditional laws and governance by, for example, arranging for children at risk to be placed with members of the same clan. No time frame was specified for drawing up those plans.

"The people are going to have to take responsibility back for what happens to the children," said Chief Dora Wilson of the Hagwilget Village Council, adding that the Wet'suwet'en approach would emphasize Indigenous culture.

"Because they don't have culture, [children in care] feel that they are alone in this world," Chief Wilson said. "Some don't even know what house and clan they belong to. ... That is why they feel so alone sometimes. They have to know we are caring what happens to them."

While the deal is in its early stages, proponents hope it will reverse long-standing over-representation of aboriginal children in government care and generations of families being involved with the child-welfare system.

"This is a huge milestone for us," Debbie Pierre, executive director of the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, a central administrative group, said on Thursday. "We know the [child welfare] system as it is today does not support Indigenous approaches."

B.C. has more than 20 delegated agencies, with a mixed track record. In a 2013 report on Aboriginal Children and Youth in B.C., former child watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said the province had spent about $66-million in the preceding 12 years on aboriginal governance endeavours, including delegated agencies, without significantly improving children's lives.

In the same report, she said delegated agencies were rife with staff turnover and struggled to find qualified people.

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In November, 2016, Grand Chief Ed John – who the government appointed as special adviser on Indigenous children in care in 2015 – released a report calling on the government to overhaul the child-welfare system, with a focus on strengthening families.

The province says it wants to move in that direction.

B.C.'s current child watchdog, Bernard Richard, on Thursday said he approves in principle the idea of First Nations having control over child welfare but that governments must ensure communities have sufficient resources to do the job.

"I don't know how you couldn't support it, given the history of Indigenous child welfare in Canada," he said.

"It has to be clear that any initiative is fully resourced, well thought-out so there is no gap in services."

He said delegated agencies are "significantly underfunded" and hampered by not having access to the same resources as their ministry counterparts. For example, ministry social workers typically have a roster of emergency foster homes they can turn to when they need to apprehend a child for safety concerns; most delegated agencies do not.

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