After a B.C. First Nation revealed that 215 suspected unmarked graves had been located on the grounds of the former residential school in Kamloops, the world paid closer attention to the cruel system of assimilation and abuse Indigenous Peoples have endured in Canada.
To walk through the doors of Lii Michif Otipemisiwak in Kamloops, B.C., is to be transported into another world.
A wooden Red River cart draped in Métis textiles is strapped to a replica buffalo in the lobby. Michif vocabulary and drums plaster the walls of the building, which smells of burning sage.
A Piihtikway gift basket welcoming newcomers into the child and family services program sits in the boardroom, opposite a painting of Louis Riel. In the play space, a tent with furs and a wood-burning stove shelters the 12 Métis teachings of the Red River cart wheel.
“Find me a ministry office where the social worker who knocks on your door for a home visit brings tea, coffee and bannock,” challenged Denise McCuaig, who sits on the Métis non-profit’s Elder’s Council.
“Find me a Ministry of Children and Family Development office where your natural supports – not just your family, but the people you call on in your times of struggle – are invited to the table as part of care planning.”
In April, the Simpcw First Nation signed a historic new agreement with the provincial government that infuses its customs, laws, language and decision-makers into the services provided to its families. Five other nations are currently negotiating with B.C. and Ottawa to retake jurisdiction over child welfare, and spearhead their own culturally appropriate services.
“There is reconciliation in child welfare,” said Mary Teegee, executive director of child and family services for Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS).
“The research shows that if you’re an Indigenous child getting served by an Indigenous agency, you’re least likely to go into care. You get better outcomes.”
For a decade or more, Indigenous-led organizations like CSFS and Lii Michif Otipemisiwak have provided a blueprint for culturally grounded, wraparound child and family services – a safe alternative to the provincial system.
As B.C.’s transformation gets underway, their experts and others say success will hinge on a “philosophical” shift towards prevention, rooted in Indigenous law, and equitable funding to ensure every child has the support they need, no matter where they live.
“We’ve always had the inherent jurisdiction to take care of our children, but we haven’t had the resources to breathe life into our own laws,” Teegee said.
“We’re in a pivotal time where we can make fundamental change so not another generation of children will have to go into care, not another generation will have to be discriminated against.”
According to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, more than 5,000 children are in government care in B.C., 68 per cent of whom are Indigenous.
The province provides child and family services to most residents, while 118 First Nations, urban Indigenous and Métis communities have access to a delegated Indigenous child and family services agency instead.
There are 24 such agencies in B.C., three of which provide voluntary services and approve foster homes, and seven of which also provide guardianship services. Two have adoption authority and 14 deliver full child protection, investigate reports and, if necessary, remove children.
Lii Michif Otipemisiwak (LMO) is one of them.
McCuaig joined LMO after her two teenage sons entered voluntary care agreements with MCFD, some of her grandchildren were apprehended and she became a foster parent. To her, “success” in Indigenous child welfare reform means “working our way out of a job.”
She envisions the Métis Nation of British Columbia eventually negotiating jurisdiction over Métis children, creating policies that allow its child welfare agencies to use Métis practices without having to justify them to anyone else.
“Lots of that has been disrupted by residential schools and the ’60s Scoop, colonization and oppression, and being challenged that we don’t belong,” McCuaig explained, sitting beneath the bright Métis sashes dangling from the boardroom ceiling.
“If we could go back to those values and those good ways of being, and doing and knowing … we believe that’s the good medicine that’s going to eliminate the need for child welfare in our community.”
In September 2020, LMO opened a 31-unit building called Kikékyelc – ‘a place of belonging’ – to respond to the crisis of Indigenous youth aging out of the provincial system and encountering “dire situations, including homelessness, addictions, poverty and unemployment.”
The transition home provides youth with the stability, cultural competency and life skills needed to become independent, and connects them with a Métis elder-in-residence who shares cultural knowledge, experience and advice when needed.
McCuaig said Indigenous children and youth in crisis are like people “falling into a river.”
“The ministry comes in and they fund the rescue of pulling them from the river, but they do very little to go upstream and fund what’s causing them to fall in the river in the first place.
At the age of 26, Steven Hicks has pulled himself out of that proverbial river. The Kamloops resident was taken into foster care as an infant, adopted at four years old, given up as a teenager and returned into the system, where he aged out of care at 19.
He was “technically homeless” when he moved into LMO’s Kikékyelc. He said he grew up “quite alienated” from his Métis culture and access to early, culturally appropriate, preventive programs would have been “life-changing.”
“Being in care doesn’t teach you any life skills you need – budgeting, money management, natural support, anything,” said Hicks, sitting in the building’s circular communal space.
“If it wasn’t for a place like LMO, I would definitely be in a different part of my life right now.”
For the first time, Hicks has a full-time job and considers himself a “low-key mentor” to the other tenants, the youngest of whom is 16. He said he’s sharing his experience because he’s realized “how powerful my voice can be.”
“It’s brought about positive change in my life, mainly just being able to watch these youth and say, ‘You know, that was me a year ago making those mistakes, doing those things,’ and then trying to help and guide them in the right direction. That’s what we’re here to do.”
The Snowoyelh program at Sts’ailes First Nation has a similar mission; its specialized resource home, however, aims to prevent children from going into care in the first place.
Te Lalem, which means ‘the house,’ brings a child’s parents into the program as well, offering around-the-clock family support rooted in Sts’ailes culture and tradition.
“Nobody knows us better than ourselves,” said Jolie Lawrence, resources director for Snowoyelh. “Nobody knows what medicine is for our people.”
Families can stay at Te Lalem as long as they need to find their footing. Parents have access to anger management, addictions counselling, support for blended families and more.
Some learn basic household skills they may not have acquired due to intergenerational trauma, such as how to maintain a routine, budget and meal plan. If a family needs something Te Lalem doesn’t have, staff find a way to get it, Lawrence added.
Since 2008, the program has supported more than 30 families, but with only eight beds in the current home, the wait-list for admission is long. In a future with more funds, Lawrence said she would buy larger homes and a suite of vehicles and boats to offer land-based healing journeys for their families.
“The ministry has been pretty fair, other than having enough funds to actually (support) all the different things,” she said. “It’s like trying to pay in apples when it needs to be in oranges.”
On reserves, Indigenous child welfare – including prevention – is funded at “actual cost” by the federal government, which reimburses the delegated Indigenous agency that provides it. If no such agency exists, Ottawa reimburses the province for service delivery instead.
Indigenous children off-reserve, however, receive “much less” funding through the B.C. government, Charlesworth found. Under colonial law, they fall under provincial jurisdiction.
Eliminating that disparity is “hugely important” to the province’s reform, said Teegee, who represents B.C. on the National Advisory Committee for Indigenous Child and Family Services Reform.
“We can have all the agreements, but if we don’t have the resources to protect our most important resource, then it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just the paper that it’s written on.”
For the first time in its decades-long history, Carrier Sekani Family Services is receiving federal funding at actual cost for its award-winning child welfare program. Based in Prince George and Vancouver, it provides holistic “cradle to grave” services for 11 First Nations in B.C.
The delegated child and family services agency is rooted in prevention, hosting warrior camps for young men, culture camps for kids and mentorship opportunities with elders. Its family preservation program, tailored to the distinct culture of each First Nation, has long maintained a 90 per cent success rate, Teegee said.
“Since we’ve received the funding from the federal government … we’re able to provide more funding directly to the communities,” she said. “We have a lot lower ratio (of social workers) compared to, say, the ministry.”
Ottawa’s needs-based model is new – the result of a years-long battle to bring the federal government into compliance with a 2016 ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It found Canada had discriminated against Indigenous children by underfunding child welfare on reserves and failing to adequately consider the consequences of removing them from their communities.
With more capital dollars available now than ever before, CSFS is planning to build a new clan house in each of its First Nations to provide more safe space for prevention and protection.
“We have the information, we have the best practices, we have the policies – we have all of the work that we’ve done that we can now share,” said Teegee. “I think that’s our vision where we all work together because as you know, in British Columbia, there are over 200 nations.”
The Ktunaxa Nation near Cranbrook, B.C., is one of many beginning to develop its own laws governing children and youth. It’s still early in the process, but the prospect is exciting to Cheryl Casimir.
“We don’t need to be bound by those restrictive colonial systems of oppression anymore,” she said. “It’s our turn to take that back and to be empowered and to look after our own.”
Casimir, a political executive of the First Nations Summit, has worked in Indigenous child welfare for decades. She sat at the national table where Bill C-92 was developed, and is part of the tripartite working group with Ottawa, the B.C. government and the First Nations Leadership Council that aims to reform B.C.’s policies related to Indigenous child welfare.
As more nations take jurisdiction back, Casimir said it’s about to get “complicated.”
“We don’t want to focus just on reserves,” she explained. “Our inherent rights follow (us), they’re not just stuck to an imaginary boundary of sorts.”
A nation’s right to protect its children transcends reserves and traditional territories, she explained. If the child moves into an urban setting or has heritage from two First Nations, collaborative conversations will need to take place.
In an interview from the legislature in Victoria, MCFD Minister Mitzi Dean said the province’s role is to support nations that want to take the next steps, at their own pace in their own way.
“As part of that, we will reach, also, a funding arrangement so that we actually have a clear pathway of how the nation wants to be exercising their jurisdiction in the years ahead,” she said.
“We, as a government, are absolutely committed to making sure we address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in care, and that we make sure children and youth can stay connected to their family, community and their culture.”
As of December last year, MCFD reports the number of B.C. children and youth living with relatives or friends, as opposed to in foster care, had increased 69 per cent from 2018 – from 1,100 to more than 1,900. More than 93 per cent of those in need of protection resume living with their families safely after receiving government support, it added.
In March, Dean announced new and extended support for youth aging out of care until the age of 27, “moving away from the broken system we inherited.” The province recently boosted funding for extended family and community caregivers to match the rates for foster caregivers as well.
Dean said B.C’s budget for child and family service delivery has increased annually since 2017, and provincial legislation has been amended to allow social workers to approach nations first with concerns about a child, and attempt to find a caregiver in-community. Other legal reforms are on the way to reflect B.C.’s rights-based “approach to reconciliation,” she added.
Asked if it’s possible for B.C. to adopt a needs-based funding model similar to Ottawa’s, Dean said, “that is the solution that needs to be found with the federal government and with Indigenous leadership.”
Dean would not reveal whether she believes B.C.’s current funding for Indigenous child welfare aligns with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s principles or Jordan’s Principle, but said MCFD is reviewing its fiscal framework. Provincially funded children and federally funded children “are the same children,” she added, and B.C. service delivery doesn’t “differentiate” between them depending on where they live.
In an interview, Charlesworth said “there’s no question” the data in her report that identified the funding disparities is accurate. The province “can’t” take the next step in Indigenous child welfare reform without resolving them, and it would be “incongruous” to suggest one is committed to reconciliation without doing so, she added.
“If we’re really sincere and committed to reconciliation, you have to close that gap,” she told Global News. “I think that the ministry appears to be reluctant to make a commitment to address that gap, and that is of concern to me.
“We’ll continue to push forward on that with the support and with the encouragement of the agencies that are delivering services, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”
In partnership with the Two Rivers Métis Society and Métis Nation of British Columbia, it has acquired land for a new building to accommodate its future needs. Communal space, offices and 112 Métis-immersion daycare spaces will occupy the lower floors, while the upper levels will host up to 50 subsidized housing units for families and children in need of support.
“I’m hoping five years from now, it will be much like a cultural hub and that will be the main focus – a place where we can have hope, meaning, belonging and purpose,” said McCuaig, as breakfast is served in the room across the hallway.
Two Métis architects have agreed to design the new hub, and the B.C. government has committed to funding the daycare spaces. The next step will be securing the capital and administrative funding.
As an urban Indigenous child and family services agency, LMO has no access to federal funds flowing from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling.
“We’re always left trying to seek other partners that can help us do that,” McCuaig said, still smiling.
“What we do here is built on the backs of volunteerism, it’s built on the backs of our Métis community’s commitment to do this work, and it’s built on the backs of incredibly passionate staff.”
She said she hopes the new building – called the Otipemisiwak Centre – will break ground in 2024, allowing everyone to wrap their arms around each other “all in one place.”