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Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal from Quebec, ruling that First Nations child-welfare reform legislation could not be struck down – that we have the right to make our own laws to protect our own children.

This was celebrated as a big win by First Nations child-welfare advocates. And it was. It came after Quebec argued that Bill C-92 was unconstitutional, because Canada was overreaching into provincial jurisdiction. But it is a bittersweet triumph that it took until 2024 – and that it required the courts at all – to uphold and support care of First Nations children in First Nations communities. After all that these children have historically and currently continue to live through, from residential and day schools to the continued scooping up of our children by the welfare system, it is shameful that it took this long to affirm that we can make our own laws concerning our kids.

But this win shows how far we are from having the true nation-to-nation partnerships that we need. That we needed a court ruling at all signals where too many people in this country remain when it comes to the safeguarding, care and nurturing of vulnerable First Nations children who routinely live without what health experts call the social determinants of health: clean water, access to an education, safe housing and having an adult family member who loves you and cares for you, keeping you from harm and with food in the fridge. Instead, we still have to deal with legal fights when we should be boots on the ground, in community, building sustainable homes, schools and youth centres, functioning economies, hospitals and the infrastructure that allows for clean drinking water and enough pressure to run hoses to fight fires.

One case in point: the John C. Yesno Education Centre in Eabametoong First Nation, the community’s only school, burned to the ground on Jan. 25, in part because the fire hoses didn’t have enough pressure to pump water. Four teens were arrested and charged. Now, nearly 300 children have nowhere to learn.

Time and time again, provincial, federal and municipal lawmakers – plus business and community leaders – have put the care of First Nations children on the back burner, paying lip service to change by reciting that all our children matter.

This paternalistic tug of war over the lives of our children is deadly. The fight for control has seen families torn apart, generations separated from their communities, their senses of self and belonging destroyed as they struggle to live without moms, dads, aunties or uncles.

This has contributed to the inexcusable death and suicide rates among Indigenous children in this country. Many First Nations have declared states of health emergency in response; in late January, Nishnawbe Aski Nation held an emergency meeting with federal and provincial officials on yet another spate of awful youth suicides.

There is only one way out of this: First Nations people must be given control of our own health, our own bodies and communities by allowing First Nations self-determination.

It is not that abstract a concept.

Ten years ago in Sandy Lake First Nation, a Treaty 5 community within Nishnawbe Aski Nation, five-year-old Brody Meekis died from complications from strep throat – an infection that adequate health care could have treated with antibiotics. Ten years on, after a litany of reports, states of emergencies, and pleas from First Nations leaders to anyone who’ll listen, we still don’t seem to be any better at improving the livelihood of First Nations families. In Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, or Big Trout Lake First Nation, nine people died in December and January; as Chief Donny Morris said, “while some of these deaths were expected, many were not.”

Instead of extending concrete help to First Nations’ efforts to grow our own governments, health care systems and institutions, Canadian governments continue to implement patchwork solutions, and the statistics keep getting worse.

As usual, Canadian politicians and bureaucrats don’t really know what to do, as they are hamstrung by their own laws and processes. The Ontario government, for its part, says it is helping by repackaging already announced funds and programs and pretending they are new – with their officials having the gall to show up at meetings with chiefs to promote this work. Here is a free piece of advice: we actually know that you are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Once again, it is time for Canadian governments to respect the inherent Indigenous right to self-governance. Taking care of our children extends beyond courtrooms. But unfortunately, it appears that the courts are the only thing Canada seems to listen to.

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