How First Nations in Alberta are building their own child welfare systems

A trio of northern First Nations expect to be the first Indigenous group to take over child welfare services from the Alberta government — but say their new agency won’t be up and running for over a year.

Loon River Cree Nation, Peerless Trout First Nation and Lubicon Lake Band are on track to sign the first agreement in Alberta, and to potentially be the first collective to sign in Canada, said Mona Auger, executive director of KTC Child & Family Services. Its head offices are located in Red Earth Creek, Alta., about 350 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

“It’s going to work,” Auger said. “I believe that we’re going to be able to provide a better service to our own members rather than the provincial system that they put upon us.”

In January 2020, new federal law affirmed Indigenous jurisdiction over child intervention services for their own populations.

Since then, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Treaty 3 in Ontario have signed trilateral agreements with the federal government and the provincial governments from which they were taking over.

Dozens of Indigenous communities across Canada have notified the federal government of plans to do the same.

Four notices of intention to exercise this authority had been served to the Alberta government as of July 7. Five requests to enter into a co-ordination agreements had been made.

KTC Child & Family Services already provides child welfare services under provincial law for the three First Nations that are members of the Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council.

Eventually, the agency will transition to operating with the authority of Awasak Wiyasiwewin — Cree for “children’s law” — once it is enacted, which Auger said is on track to happen in September 2023.

The new law was approved by membership of the three First Nations in a vote last September.

Work with province ongoing

If negotiations weren’t going well with the two levels of government, the tribal council could have enacted the law Friday, Auger said, as it marked one year since serving the provincial and federal governments notice. 

Talks with the two governments on fiscal and co-ordination agreements have gone well, however, so they’re continuing to work together on the transition, she said.

“We were initially worried about Alberta’s position, but they’ve been supportive of us and working with us and meeting with us regularly,” Auger said. 

She added progress continued when Children’s Services Minister Matt Jones took over the file in June, after MLA Rebecca Schulz resigned to run for the leadership of the United Conservative Party.

Jones was unavailable for an interview, but his press secretary Andrew Reith told CBC News the ministry is committed to working with Indigenous communities to create co-ordination agreements and ensure Indigenous children are safe and receiving support.

Advocates have called for an urgent decolonization of Alberta’s child welfare system. Indigenous children and youth are vastly overrepresented in Alberta’s child welfare system.

Of the 49 people who died while receiving child intervention services in fiscal 2021-2022, 39 were Indigenous. 

Removing children from care ‘last resort’

The KTC law will ensure children will only be taken into care as a “last, last resort,” Auger said. 

“Our law is different than the provincial law in that it really emphasizes… prevention, early intervention activities,” Auger said.

Alberta’s courts will not have a role in their system, she said. Instead, if a family wants to appeal a decision made by the executive director, it will be reviewed by a tribunal with members appointed by the three First Nations’ leadership.

There are also plans to set up urban offices in communities where there is a high enough concentration of members of the three First Nations, Auger said. 

There are about 4,000 total members, most of whom live on reserve in northern Alberta, she said. But their jurisdiction over their children will extend anywhere in Canada a member is living. 

Auger hopes their organization’s work can help guide other Indigenous communities that are in earlier stages of crafting their own child welfare laws. 

Driftpile Cree Nation Chief Dwayne Laboucan said his community has been working on its law for about a year. There will be a third reading of the legislation next month, then members will vote on it.

Driftpile Cree Nation Chief Dwayne Laboucan says members of his nation will vote on a new child welfare law in September. (Chief Dwayne Laboucan)

He said there are roughly 1,200 members living on the First Nation — located about 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton — and about 1,200 living elsewhere.

Like KTC, Driftpile’s law will prioritize prevention and keeping children with their families, and will rely on a dispute-resolution process outside of Alberta courts.

Laboucan said another key part of Driftpile’s legislation is keeping their culture and language at the forefront. 

“Words matter,” the chief said. “Our law gets rid of terms like ‘agency’ and ‘custody’ and ‘apprehension,’ and replaces them with concepts and ideas familiar to Cree people to transform the way that we care for one another.” 

Laboucan expects it will be a year or two before Driftpile is ready to launch its child and family services, because they need time to build infrastructure and hire staff.

“We want to do it right. We’re not going to rush into it,” he said. “We want to make sure everything is set up properly and done right before we take full control of it.”

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