An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis children, youth and families (Bill C-92) came into force on January 1, 2020. The Act creates national standards for Indigenous children in the child welfare system and sets out a path for Indigenous governing bodies to enact and enforce child welfare laws.
In asserting our inherent jurisdiction in relation to child and family services with respect to Opaskwayak children, youth and families, Opaskwayak Cree Nation (Opaskwayak) will be developing a Wahkohtowin law, based on our own laws as Ininewak. In the creation of this law, we are returning to our own ways of providing for our children, recognizing that it is our families, community and nation that have the ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of our children.
Numerous reviews conducted into the child welfare system in Manitoba dating back to the 1960’s have only confirmed what we have known all along – that the imposition of federal and provincial laws on Opaskwayak children and families has not worked for us. Despite the devastating impacts these laws have had on our children and families, our Wahkohtowin law will ensure that Opaskwayak children and families receive full-circle prevention, early-intervention, and protection services in a manner that best meets our needs.
To carry out this important work, Opaskwayak Cree Nation has retained Winnipeg law firm, Cochrane Saxberg Johnston, Johnson and Scarcello LLP (Cochrane Saxberg) to assist in the drafting and implementation of our Wahkohtowin law. Cochrane Saxberg is Manitoba’s largest Indigenous law firm and is a leader in Indigenous and child protection law. Leading the legal team is Harold (Sonny) Cochrane, a member of Fisher River Cree Nation and the firm’s managing partner as well as Jessica (Marcellais) Saunders, an associate at the firm and member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
A Wahkohtowin Working Group will be convened consisting of Onekanew mena Onuschekawak portfolio holders for CFS, Education, and Health; representatives from the Council of Elders; OCN Child and Family Services (OCN CFS), and other representatives with lived experience in the child welfare system. The Wahkohtowin Working Group will be responsible for overseeing the process for the creation of the law. This will include conducting Community Consultations to ensure our members are actively engaged and involved in the establishment of our law.
The process has already begun with Cochrane Saxberg and OCN CFS conducting internal reviews with each of the Agency’s departments including: Intake, Family Enhancement, Alternative Care, Child Protection, Finance, Quality Assurance, and Human Resources. These reviews will examine what works and what does not work in the current system to ensure that our Wahkohtowin law leaves behind those laws, regulations and standards that do not meet our needs and is enhanced by those that ensure the safety and well-being of our children.
Community Consultations are scheduled to occur in August and September 2020 in Opaskwayak and in Winnipeg. It will be important for all members and stakeholders to attend Community Consultations to ensure that your voices are heard in this process.
The Wahkohtowin law will be completed by October 2020. Opaskwayak then intends to provide notice to the Government of Canada under section 20 of the Act to enter into a Coordination Agreement that will ensure that financial arrangements are in place for the full and effective operation of our Wahkohtowin law. While funding is not legislated for in the Act, Opaskwayak will advocate to ensure that the services we provide under our Wahkohtowin law are funded equitably, consistent with principles of substantive equality. Opaskwayak refuses to inherit the appalling funding inequities of the current child welfare system.
Opaskwayak will also ensure that our Wahkohtowin law is interpreted and implemented by our own Ininewak tribunals, utilizing alternative dispute resolution provisions of the Act. For too long, decisions regarding our children and families have been made by outside courts and tribunals with decision makers who have little understanding of who we are. In our Wahkohtowin law, we will make our own decisions in the best interests of Opaskwayak children and families based on our Ininewak laws.
Under the one-year timeline in section 20 of the Act, the Wahkohtowin law will come into force and be fully operational in October 2021. After decades of assimilationist and discriminatory laws and polices, Opaskwayak will be asserting full, inherent jurisdiction over child and family services. Our children will remain with their families, our parents and families will receive the supports they need and Opaskwayak will continue to thrive as we return to our own Ininewak ways.