They took care of their kids prior to European contact for thousands of years and need to resume that control for the sake of child welfare, a spokesman for Manitoba chiefs told the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair Monday.
"It's left a bit of a tragic situation for many of our children and our families," said Norman Bone, who grew up at Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation near Riding Mountain National Park. "Initially, we were independent and sustainable. We've since become dependent."
The longtime child welfare advocate, who has served as Keeseekoowenin's chief more than once, described the history of child welfare in Manitoba from first contact with Europeans to residential schools to the "60's scoop" of aboriginal children taken away for adoption to the current devolution of the child welfare system. It hasn't gone far enough, said Bone.
"We're finding extreme difficulty in being able to function in that system because it's one of dependency," Bone told the inquiry. The number of kids in care in Manitoba has grown to nearly 10,000 and more than 80 per cent are aboriginal.
"We just put brown faces in those chairs," he said. By "borrowing legislation" from existing governments, they haven't been able to author and approve their own child welfare legislation, he said at the inquiry that began in September. It was ordered by the province after Phoenix's 2005 death on Fisher River First Nation was discovered in 2006. The probe is to find out why it took so long for the five-year-old's death to be discovered, how the little girl in and out of care her whole life fell through Manitoba's child welfare safety net and what's been done or needs to be done to improve it.
Since 1870 and the creation of the Indian Act, First Nations' houses have been "emptied out" of their resources and responsibilities, Bone said. If original treaties were honoured, First Nations would have the resources to run their own child welfare systems again, he said.
"Prior to contact, we were self-governing," said Bone. The Ojibway survived long, severe winters like the one Manitoba just endured for thousands of years before colonization, he said to illustrate his point. "You couldn't have lived without being organized in such a way to survive and look after your family."
Restoring aboriginal autonomy can reduce the number of kids in care and save money, the inquiry heard. The West Region Child and Family Services' Vision Seekers program that ran in Skownan First Nation saved more than $25 million, a report presented at the inquiry said. The program was set up from a holistic aboriginal family and community healing perspective. The program offered life-skills workshops, adult education, a community-centred therapy program and a career-trek program for young adolescents and their parents. It engaged children, adolescents, youth, parents and elders. The report said it returned $6.20 in savings for every $1 spent.
Restoring First Nations' control over their own kids is necessary to create a system that works, said Bone. New legislation might be similar to existing legislation but it should come from the people it's meant to govern, he said. Among Manitoba's 62 First Nations, there are several different tribes and languages spoken, but for effective child welfare systems to be in place, they need to reflect them, said Bone.
"If we're looking at having laws... we have to design (them)," said Bone.
"Hopefully it won't take 100 years."