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Sts'ailes, frustrated with the feds, signs and funds its own child welfare agreement

Lily Solomon, from left to right, Paulette Phillips, Wanda Lewis, Tyra Point, Jeremy Charlie and Karson Charlie of the Sts'ailes, a Coast Salish First Nation, are shown at a signing ceremony in the Charlie Longhouse in Harrison Mills, B.C., in a Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Sts'ailes Nation, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

OTTAWA — A First Nation in British Columbia has taken matters into its own hands after what leaders call a lack of commitment from the federal and provincial government to help them take full jurisdiction over child and family services. 

Sts'ailes, a Coast Salish First Nation, has been working with Ottawa for years to implement its own child welfare practices after the government passed a law in 2019 that allowed it to do so. 

A co-ordination agreement between the nation, Ottawa and B.C. on implementing their own protocols was set to be formalized last week.

But the First Nation says the federal government hit the pause button instead of following through, so it has decided to start and fund its own program without the formal go-ahead. 

"The system doesn't work for us, and one day is a day too long for our children," said Willie Charlie, the lead negotiator for the agreement.

"Our children are our most precious resource."

The Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families affirms that Indigenous Peoples have an inherent right to self-government that includes control over child and family services.

It also states children should not be apprehended solely because of their socio-economic conditions, including a lack of housing.

The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the law earlier this month after the Quebec government challenged it by asserting that parts of the act overstepped federal jurisdiction.

Charlie said he was told the last-minute delay on Canada's side has to do with the Finance Department, despite legal teams saying they're comfortable with the agreement.

"The colonial, paternalistic, bureaucratic systems are impacting culturally appropriate services for our children," Charlie said.

He also says Canada has not been forthcoming about what non-Indigenous child welfare service workers are paid for their work, making it difficult for the nation to make sure they're receiving comparable funding under the agreement negotiated with the federal government. 

And as more time passes, he said, the longer children will be stuck in systems that don't represent them.

The B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development said in a statement it is committed to "building trusting, collaborative relationships" and looks forward to continuing to work with Sts'ailes.

Indigenous Services Canada said the same, adding ongoing discussions will help outline the roles and responsibilities of all three jurisdictions.

"These discussions are complex and seek to ensure that their children remain in their community surrounded by their families, loved ones and cultures," said spokesperson Anispiragas Piragasanathar.

"Canada remains committed to completing a trilateral agreement as soon as possible."

Charlie said Sts'ailes law will cover children on reserve, though the community is hoping to cover those who are currently off-reserve beginning in April.

According to data from the province, nearly 70 per cent of children and youth who were in care during the 2021-22 financial year were Indigenous.

Contrary to existing child welfare models that have seen troves of Indigenous children removed from their communities, Sts'ailes is trying to prioritize keeping families together and out of the court system. 

Putting kids' fates in the hands of lawyers deepens divides and pits family members against each other, Charlie said. 

Sts'ailes is currently building six resource homes to help create more stability for kids and allow families to pursue constructive change. 

"We want a place for them to come home where we can wrap some cultural programs and services around them," Charlie said. 

"We keep them united, and we work with the whole family to help keep them together rather than separating them."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press

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