By Shannon VanRaes
COWESSESS FIRST NATION, Saskatchewan (Reuters) -The Canadian indigenous group that announced last month the discovery of an estimated 751 unmarked graves near a former residential school said on Tuesday it would take charge of its own child welfare services under an agreement with the federal government.
The accord, unveiled at an event in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan attended by Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, marks the first time in 70 years the community will have control over child and family services among its members.
It is the first such agreement under a 2019 law meant to give indigenous groups more control over child welfare in their communities and reduce the overrepresentation of indigenous children in foster care. Cowessess First Nation passed an act intended to do that in March 2020.
“Our goal is one day there will be no children in care,” Delorme told the event, adding: “We have a lot of work to do.”
Trudeau said his government is in talks with other First Nations on similar agreements. Government spokespeople did not confirm whether Ottawa would continue to fund the First Nation’s child and family services costs going forward.
Canada has for decades disproportionately separated indigenous children from their families to place them in foster care – sometimes because services they needed were underfunded on reserves.
In Saskatchewan, 80% of children in foster care are Indigenous, according to a 2018 report.
Canada is reeling from the discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, many of them believed to be children. They are a grim reminder of the abuses indigenous communities have suffered for generations and their fight for justice.
For 165 years and as recently as 1996, Canada’s residential school system separated children from their families and sent them to boarding schools where they were malnourished, beaten and sexually abused in what the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide” in 2015.
The federal government was in court last month fighting a Human Rights Tribunal ruling that would have made Ottawa individually compensate children and families harmed by what the government admits is a discriminatory child and family services system. A federal court ruling is pending.
Tuesday’s announcement may not improve things for Cowessess children if the circumstance of their families’ lives do not change as well, said Cindy Blackstock, a member of Gitxsan First Nation and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which is taking the government to court over the system.
That would require better funding for services such as housing, she said.
“We know from the research that the closer (to the First Nation) the control is for children’s services, the better the outcomes ultimately are for children. So that’s positive,” she said.
(Additional reporting and writing by by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Peter Cooney)