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Duane Ningaqsiq Smith is the chair and CEO of Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which represents the communities of Aklavik, Inuvik, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories.

Growing up in Inuvik, in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in Canada’s Western Arctic, I lived next to a group home.

The children – Inuvialuit like me – were in the care of Northwest Territories social services, separated from their families, sometimes far from their home communities, with no connection to their identity.

Even as a child, I could see how hard it was for them, going through life and school without any people, without any sense of who they were in the world.

This week, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which was established in 1984 to represent the Inuvialuit under one of Canada’s oldest and most comprehensive land claim agreements, passed our first law: Inuvialuit Qitunrariit Inuuniarnikkun Maligaksat.

This law re-establishes our jurisdiction over child and family services, and in doing so, makes us the first Inuit region to assert this important right.

We join other Indigenous governments across the country in taking this step in response to Bill C-92, which came into effect in 2020 and affirms Indigenous authority over child and family services, as recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its efforts to address the continuing legacy of residential schools.

The region where I live is now in the fourth generation of residential school survivors, and I want you to try and imagine the lasting effects of that trauma.

Think about raising your own children without any model for how to care for them, because your parents and grandparents were still dealing with past horrors. Families broken up, forcibly separated, children abused and disconnected from their language, their culture, their way of life and even murdered.

And then, as a result, to see more children taken into systems that replicate some of these same harms.

In response to these realities, our new law has four main principles:

To ensure cultural continuity for each Inuvialuit child and youth, which includes serving them in their home community to the greatest extent possible.

To enhance the support available to Inuvialuit families, reducing the need for intervention.

To improve information sharing so we know where and how our kids are being cared for anywhere in the country, allowing us to provide fully informed service provisions, advocacy and decision-making.

And to expand the exercise of Inuvialuit jurisdiction in these services at our own pace, in our own way.

Our law, the name of which translates to Inuvialuit Family Way of Living Law, is a crucial step in self-determination and in rebuilding family ties. It is a strong tool that holds us accountable, as well.

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation is no stranger to complex responsibilities, from corporate investment and land management, to a broad range of social, cultural and economic services. But these are our children we’re talking about.

And so Inuvialuit will move carefully when it comes to taking over these services, building capacity so that we’re not setting ourselves up to fail, and so each child’s well-being always comes first.

Things can only get better. The Auditor-General of the Northwest Territories has reported twice on existing social services and found they did not maintain regular contact with 90 per cent of kids in care, among other failures.

I read these reports with shock and frustration. I want our young people to reach adulthood with confidence, to be successful in all their endeavours, feel pride and a sense of who they are – they’re Inuvialuit – and know that we have their backs.

We will soon begin co-ordination agreements with the governments of Canada, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alberta (where the majority of our beneficiaries live), and I hope they have our backs too, providing meaningful, sustainable support for this work while leaving the programming to us.

At times, I don’t think some fully realize that this is a fundamental shift, as we take back control of the day-to-day governance of one sector of society.

This work is 153 years overdue. When Europeans came over and Canada was slowly evolving and created through these treaties, they were never implemented the way they were supposed to be.

Now, decades after my childhood next to that group home, we’re finally getting around to creating a true partnership.

I said as much to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently, reminding him of the years, days and hours that have passed, and telling him that while time has been ticking, we are finally here and this is a positive step forward.

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