CFS boards are no place for chiefs

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Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine made an impassioned speech to the media this week: he and several other First Nation chiefs want a bigger role within the Child and Family Services system. Fontaine and six other chiefs were recently appointed to the Southern CFS authority, despite bylaws that forbid it in order to prevent conflicts of interest.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/11/2010 (4298 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sagkeeng Chief Donavan Fontaine made an impassioned speech to the media this week: he and several other First Nation chiefs want a bigger role within the Child and Family Services system. Fontaine and six other chiefs were recently appointed to the Southern CFS authority, despite bylaws that forbid it in order to prevent conflicts of interest.

It’s good to hear Fontaine say leadership wants a stronger say in the care of aboriginal children, but this isn’t the route to go. Chiefs on CFS boards will cause problems.

You see, First Nations are close-knit communities and just like small towns, it’s tough to keep a secret on the rez. If you live on a reserve and your kids get taken away by CFS, then everyone knows. And if you’re a CFS foster parent who lives on reserve, everyone knows where you live, too.

I know an on-reserve foster parent who’s had difficulties with parents who show up at her house trying to see their kids who’ve been apprehended by CFS and put in her care. Even CFS workers are known in the community. CFS issues on reserve are difficult for everyone involved.

Then when it comes to the chief, things get even more complicated.

What does a chief do if a member of his own family or extended family has a child apprehended? Do they get involved, or stay neutral? It becomes a total conflict of interest when that chief is on a CFS board, privy to CFS information about families he may know or be related to.

Even when someone isn’t related to the chief, they will still go to the chief for help when their child is taken into CFS care. That’s the way the hierarchy is set up within the band office system.

Chiefs such as Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Morris Shannacappo have said that much — when something happens in the community the first one to get a call is the chief.

When people need help with housing, social assistance, funeral expenses, bills, jobs, training, education funding, or medical services they need to go to the band office. Everything goes through the reserve and involves the chief.

So it’s almost impossible for a chief not to get involved when a band member asks for help.

Besides, chiefs already have too much to manage when it comes to the well-being of their people.

Chiefs are already dealing with several critical issues on their reserves: everything from housing shortages, to toxic water, to addictions, to fire and emergency services.

It makes no sense for them to get appointed to CFS boards when there are so many other issues that need their ongoing attention. Chiefs may want a say but it is really in the best interest of the children that they remain at arm’s length. They should offer input and work in partnership with CFS agencies.

But CFS boards must remain independent to be effective.

If chiefs want to make a difference in the way the CFS system is evolving, they should be working on a huge gap that’s lacking attention — working with the parents of children who get apprehended. They reach out to the chiefs for help in the first place.

Those parents need support to understand the CFS system, as well as deal with the issues that led them to having their children taken away in the first place. They need guidance to learn parenting skills, deal with addictions, past abuse, and maybe one day become healthy parents who are able to provide a safe home to their children.

By working with both sides of broken families we can eventually fix the dysfunction that’s been tearing us apart for generations.

Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

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