First Nations will get back control of child welfare in southern Manitoba Tuesday, ending a three-year dispute that halted devolution.

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First Nations will get back control of child welfare in southern Manitoba Tuesday, ending a three-year dispute that halted devolution.

A new seven-person board of First Nations people will regain control of the Southern Authority, likely Tuesday. And the province will cancel its order appointing an administrator to run the authority, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said Monday.

The Southern Authority, which oversees 10 frontline agencies and about 4,500 kids in care, has been under provincial control for more than three years, sparked by a dispute between Manitoba’s top chiefs and the Southern Authority over whether chiefs could sit on the authority’s board. In the fall of 2012, with both sides at a stalemate and the matter in court, the authority’s board fell below levels allowed by legislation, forcing the province to step in and take over.

The move essentially stripped First Nations of any direct authority over child welfare, a key element of devolution, which was meant to hand over responsibility of child welfare programs to indigenous people. But the role of chiefs in child welfare has always been controversial. Many, including current Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, have argued that democratically elected band chiefs ought to have some say in the running of a key public service on their reserve. Others, including senior child welfare officials, worried chiefs might be prone to interfere in specific cases for political gain.

"To me that was a really sad day, that we got to that point," said Irvin-Ross of the province’s takeover of the Southern Authority. "Today is a day of celebration that we worked through the governance issues and we find ourselves in a place where I have a lot of confidence in their ability to govern the authority and support the agencies. We’ve all matured through devolution."

The Southern Authority’s new board includes an education expert, a former senior child welfare official and two former band councillors but no chiefs. The Southern Chiefs recruited and vetted the new board members. Irvin-Ross said the province had no input into the choices. The new board will meet Tuesday with the Southern Authority’s new acting CEO, Tara Petti.

Southern Grand Chief Terry Nelson said he hopes the new board pushes to keep far more children on reserve rather than sending them to Winnipeg or other cities for foster care. And he expressed skepticism of a child welfare system that was imposed on First Nations people, even under the guise of devolution.

"This is an interim step," said Nelson of the Southern Authority’s new board. "But legitimizing someone else’s system isn’t the way to go."

Meanwhile, Irvin-Ross said she hopes the Northern Authority will also come out of administration this spring. The province took over the Northern Authority more than a year ago because the authority was dysfunctional. It wasn’t keeping proper track of children in care and wasn’t moving quickly enough on key recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.

Irvin-Ross said the province is finalizing a memo with the northern chiefs organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, that will outline the steps the Northern Authority must follow in order to emerge from administration and be transferred back to a First Nations board.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca