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It was unusually hot for a late-September day in Ontario, so searing that even the rez dogs were lying down, immobile. But the children didn’t care about the heat on Tuesday. They ran around chasing each other in front of those gathered outside the new blue building in town, the home of the First Nations child-protection and representation program Kaa Yaa Me Sta Maa Ket, waiting for the red ribbon to be cut.

Standing on the building’s porch among the dignitaries was Jocelyne Sutherland, the child welfare manager who worked hard with her team to make this day happen. Ms. Sutherland is a dynamo who has tried to capture all the changes happening in child welfare – from Bill C-92, an act giving First Nations control over child protection, to the $20-billion Ottawa set out for reforming the on-reserve welfare system and the $23-billion settlement for those whose lives were shattered by regressive laws that scooped children up and took them far away to be raised by non-Indigenous families.

Child welfare gained steam when the residential schools started closing in the 1960s, and it continued even after the last one closed in 1996. Now, Ms. Sutherland believes that Kaa Yaa Me Sta Maa Ket represents a major step toward rolling back years of colonization for the community’s children. “Kaa Yaa Me Sta Maa Ket means we speak for the people who need support, who need guidance … That is what our program is about,” Ms. Sutherland said about the James Bay Cree phrase that lends the program its name. “We need to make those changes to say, ‘It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to reach out. We’ll be your voice, we’ll speak for you.’ ”

$23-billion First Nations child-welfare settlement could start being paid next year after lengthy legal battle

Bringing children home – back to the care and control of the community – is what Kaa Yaa Me Sta Maa Ket strives for. That mandate comes from young leaders like Ms. Sutherland, who was herself removed as a child from Fort Albany to live somewhere else in the “system” – twice. However, by the third time, she “had no choice but to leave” because she had to go to high school outside of Fort Albany – a common occurrence in northern First Nations communities that lack such educational basics.

What is nearly unbelievable is that this happened to her in Fort Albany, home to the notorious St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, which operated along the shore of the Albany River from 1906 to 1976. Many at Kaa Yaa Me Sta Maa Ket’s grand opening were survivors or intergenerational survivors of the school, who had to overcome the near-eradication of their culture and identity by church and state.

“There is a lot of healing that needs to be done, a lot of trauma, a lot of grief, to the point where death is the only option,” Ms. Sutherland told me. After years of working on the front lines of child protection, including crisis counselling, she can’t bring herself to visit Fort Albany’s graveyard – there are too many young people resting there that the so-called “system” failed.

“I don’t know. I tend to lose sleep from time to time just thinking, how do we make this better?”

Robert Nakogee, the former Chief of Fort Albany, worked with Ms. Sutherland to raise funds to build the new centre. “As long as a child says, ‘I want to stay here,’ we have to say okay and find a way, because this is where the child’s roots are,” he says. When Mr. Nakogee was five years old, he told me, he was taken in by a local family in Fort Albany when his mother was having a hard time.

“It is important that families step up,” he said, looking out at the happy crowd. “I see here a lot of families step up for their families; they took a child in and is raising them as their own. Some take two or three. That is something.”

It used to be that extended families – aunties, uncles, grandparents – would take care of their kin. Everyone kept an eye on each other’s children. The way forward for our children is rebuilding that spirit that has been lost.

To destroy a people, you attack the children – that’s what the “system” did. We need to turn that around and protect our children, says Victor Linklater, the Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation. “Rebuild families and you get a stronger community, that is the way to go,” he said. “This is a start to regain nationhood.”

It’s not easy to roll back the destructive laws of colonization. There is no simple solution forward. But there is love, forgiveness and keeping our families together – and Kaa Yaa Me Sta Maa Ket is a place to start.

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