Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

We owe it to our children, now and forever

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IT'S a fact, sad but true. Most of the children in care in this province are aboriginal. For dec­ades, a largely non-aboriginal social welfare system took those children when it felt it had to and moved them into foster homes that were again, largely non-aboriginal.

The system decreed when and if those children ever re­turned to their homes.

It was well-intentioned, but devastating to the commun­ities that lost their children, and to the children who for­ever lost their communities.

An inquiry into Manitoba's child welfare system con­cluded in 1985 that in effect it amounted to "cultural genocide."

Something had to change.

Aboriginal groups and social justice activists lobbied hard for the province to "devolve" or transfer the watch of the province's First Nations people to its own.

By 2003, four separate child welfare umbrella authorities had been created -- two for First Na­tions children off-reserve (reserves remain under federal jurisdiction), one for Metis children and one for non-aboriginal children -- and in 2005, devolution to First Nations jurisdiction took place.

It should be a point of pride that ours is the first province to take this step.

Instead, we have critics pointing to a report last week by the Office of the Children's Advocate as proof that devolution is a failure, an experiment in "political correctness" that needs to be scrapped.

That is nonsense.

If we have learned anything this week from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, it is that there have been many well-intentioned and failed attempts to look after First Nations people in this country, from the 1960s Scoop to the resi­dential school system. Each attempt has driven towards assimilation rather than the paradigm we Canadians take such pride in, our cultural mo­saic.

In his historic apology of 2008 to First Nations people, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it was wrong for the government to have separated aboriginal children from their culture; that it had created a void in many lives and many commun­ities. "Strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us," Harper said.

Devolution recognizes the value of culture, just as it recognizes the value of creating stronger communities, and stronger families.

The intent is sound, but the devolution process itself -- as chronicled by a Free Press investi­gative series in 2008 -- has been poorly imple­mented. One child in particular, Gage Guimond, died after being placed in an unsafe, yet culturally appropriate home. Amendments to the province's Child Welfare Act -- placing a child's safety over all other considerations -- have since provided a clearer mandate to the new agencies.

The Office of the Children's Advocate reports it is swamped; the province's social workers are overwhelmed, and there are now 2,000 more chil­dren in care than there were in 2005. The report was discouraging, but not surprising.

Poverty, addiction, the residential school legacy, unemployment, lack of education, all of these long­standing and complex social issues did not dis­appear just because devolution had taken place. A new approach can only offer a new direction, and perhaps new hope.

The province has taken many positive steps to improve CFS in the last few years, expanding the authority of the Children's Advocate to review the deaths of those in care; hiring and training more aboriginal social workers; finding safe foster homes.

It's time now for the Harper government to step up and narrow the great chasm that exists these days between the quality of care of children on and off Manitoba's reserves. It has recently bumped up funding to Alberta, Nova Scotia, Quebec and PEI -- but Manitoba is still waiting.

There is no turning back. We owe it to our most sacred trust; our children, our future.

Margo Goodhand is Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

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