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The child welfare system in Manitoba must be overhauled to shift the focus back on the territory of First Nations and on families and the parenting skills gutted by a century and a half of residential schools, aboriginal leaders said on Tuesday.
The 10 proposals, contained in a reported entitled Bringing our Children Home, include a sharp reduction in the number of group homes and foster families centralized in Winnipeg.
First Nations have been empowered for a decade to run their own child welfare system on the basis of an agreement struck with the provincial government. But practically since its inception, First Nations, especially chiefs, have been at loggerheads with the government over how to run the system at reserve level.
"We need to reconstruct our own roles right down to our families and recognize we are parents (first)," Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs leader Derek Nepinak told a news conference.
"I don’t believe we’re calling for an entirely different system. The solutions exist within our own communities, within our own families.
"The safest place a child can be is in their own community. If they can’t be in their own homes then. . . (among) all the familiar faces that are there to provide that sense of security. That’s not there right now."
Nepinak said the report would be presented to the province. But he said he had few expectations the government would adopt it and suggested First Nations were unlikely to be happy with what province has to say in its implementation report.
He told reporters major changes would not necessarily be required in the overhaul. The Mathias Colomb First Nation in Pukatawagan, for instance. runs safe houses in the community for children, enabling their to remain on First Nation territory when their families fall apart or run into temporary trouble.
"We believe the quarter of a billion dollars the province spends on foster care can be better used building services at the community level," he said.
The AMC chose Tuesday to release the report to coincide with the province receiving another, long-awaited paper on implementing 31 of 62 recommendations in the Hughes Report into the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair. The child’s remains were found in a dump on the Fisher River reserve in March 2006. She had been under the watch of Manitoba Child and Family Services before her death at the hands of her mother and the woman’s boyfriend.
The AMC's recommendations will involve a fundamental shift, with parents learning to be good mothers and fathers within an indigenous model that puts children at the centre of the home and community.
Bill Traverse, the Manitoba vice chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said the existing child welfare system perpetuates the method used in the residential school era: removing children from their families and communities instead of restoring communities devastated by generations trauma and dysfunction.
The AFN, a lobby group of First Nations chiefs, called on Wednesday for an inquiry into the manner in which police handled the death of Tina Fontaine, retrieved from the Red River in August after fleeing from the province's child welfare system.
"I feel like we’ve been going backward ever since we set up our own agencies and we’ve been calling for an inquiry for the past 10 years," Traverse said.
For kids, the consequences too often mean they are removed from their homes and parents, and are left to fend for themselves, creating a cycle of despair nobody can shake loose, reporters were told.
Community advocate Charlene Gladu said parents have told her say they’ve called their locally run child welfare agency for help only to have their children taken out of their care completely.
"What broke if for me is Tina Fontaine. Tina and her family were broken by a system that failed them," Gladu said.
Tina Fontaine’s aunt in Sagkeeng First Nation was her principal guardian until she called on CFS workers for help. Tina ended up in a Winnipeg foster home, but ran away and was last seen alive by authorities on the streets.
Her death triggering renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
The AFN vice chief said such cases expose serious problems, the root of which was letting other people take over for indigenous families.
"There was a time when our people said it takes a community to raise a child. We’re not allowed to do that. They (the province) have turned our children into an industry and it’s not benefitting us," Traverse said.
Grand Chief Nepinak was deeply sceptical on the province's reaction to the AMC report's recommendations.
"I don’t put a lot of legitimacy into that process. There’s a wide gulf of understanding here and we’ve got to find a way to bridge that gap," he said.
"At the same time, we don’t want a situation where we have someone who thinks they hold the moral ground over us... It’s up to people to recognize what the province is up to. They continue to speak from a moral high ground and it’s up to us whether we continue to perpetuate that."