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‘We Can Stop That Flow of Children Going into Care’

Part nine in a series: how one First Nations community took on the child welfare system and won.

Katie Hyslop 6 Jun

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. This series is supported by Vancouver Foundation. Supporters neither influence nor endorse the particular content of the reporting. Other publications wishing to publish Katie’s work can contact editor Barry Link at .

Since 1980 about 450 children have been born into the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation.

Chief Wayne Christian knows where every one of them is.

That’s rare. Across Canada, more than half the children in the state’s care are Indigenous, most living outside their communities with non-Indigenous caregivers.

But the Splatsin (pronounced ‘sblajeen’), members of the Secwepemc Nation who live near the town of Enderby, B.C., are unique.

There are 24 delegated aboriginal agencies in the province. These are operated by and for Indigenous people, but under provincial regulations and laws and required to report to the B.C. government as a condition of their federal and provincial funding.

But the Splatsin have the only First Nation child welfare service that exists entirely outside the provincial system, operating under their own child welfare bylaw since 1980. It re-establishes their jurisdiction over their own children both on and off reserve and has been recognized by both the provincial and federal governments.

“It’s based on our culture, our values, and our connection to our families. It’s totally different from the provincial system,” said Christian. First Nations were never consulted when the federal government decided to hand on-reserve child welfare responsibilities to the provinces and territories in 1951, he notes.

“Yes, we have the best interests of the child in mind, that doesn’t change,” Christian said. “But one of the biggest differences is our job is to rebuild the family, not to tear the family apart.”

Jurisdiction is a big issue in Indigenous child welfare discussions. But every person interviewed for this series said that dismantling 13 different provincial and territorial child welfare systems and empowering every Indigenous community to take on that duty themselves will not be easy or quick. So how did the Splatsin do it almost four decades ago, before Indigenous rights had been enshrined in our Constitution? Before the Sixties Scoop had even been named, let alone acknowledged by settler governments as a bad idea?

And have the Splatsin created a blueprint that other First Nations can follow?

A protest march to Vancouver

It took a village — several villages — a caravan, and a three-day road trip to then deputy premier Grace McCarthy’s house on Thanksgiving weekend 1980 for the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation to make Indigenous child welfare history. But it all started two decades earlier.

Christian and all nine of his siblings had been taken into care by the Ministry of Human Resources when he was 12, part of leap in apprehensions of Indigenous children now referred to as the Sixties Scoop.

He was mostly raised outside his community and, when he came back to Splatsin at 21, he couldn’t identify his relatives in a community of just 350 people. And he was far from the only young adult trying to re-establish his roots in his part of the Secwepemc Nation, then known as the Spallumcheen of the Secwepemc Nation.

He and his fellow scoop survivors felt like “foreigners with our own people,” he told The Tyee.

This is not a feeling everyone can overcome. The trauma of being ripped from your parents, first to be sent to residential schools, later under child welfare laws that viewed poverty as neglect, has a profoundly negative effect on children physically, mentally and spiritually.

Many of the children taken from their families faced abuse and neglect from their new caregivers and adoptive families. If they managed to return to their communities as adults, many felt alienated from their culture, unable to speak the language or recognize relatives, sometimes facing rejection. Some turned to substances to ease the pain and trauma — or suicide to end it.

But Christian was able to work with his community. In 1977, at age 23, he had joined the band council. By 1979 he was elected chief. That year the council was approached by a young mother on the brink of losing her four boys to the provincial child welfare system, asking for the band’s help.

“We talked about it in our council chambers and what we discovered was each one of us — at that time there was myself and three council members — had been part of the Sixties Scoop,” Christian said.

“And then further research showed that in our community, our population at that time was about 350, we had approximately 100 children — almost all of the families in our community, their children were removed in the Sixties Scoop.”

Recognizing the need for change, the council approached their elders to ask what they did for families who had problems raising their kids before colonial laws were imposed on them.

“What they talked about at that time was what was called an Indian Court where all the decisions around wrongdoing or families were brought before the chief and the council and it was dealt with in that manner,” said Christian, adding they also had their own jail and policing systems.

Wanting to recreate that system, the Splatsin council turned to the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, then under Grand Chief George Manuel, for help. Manuel set them up with Louise Mandell, today a prominent Indigenous rights lawyer, to help draw up a community bylaw asserting their jurisdiction over their own children both on and off reserve.

The bylaw was sent to then federal Indian Affairs minister John Munro for his approval. He reportedly initially rejected the bylaw based on advice that it was unconstitutional. However after some minor adjustments and significant lobbying by the band, when the bylaw was submitted again Munro did nothing, which meant it automatically became law after 40 days.

Political lessons from South Africa

But the federal government, while providing funding, stipulated on-reserve child welfare services must follow provincial child welfare law. Since those services were delivered by the provincial government, the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation needed British Columbia to recognize and respect their jurisdiction both on and off reserve if they hoped to reclaim the right to look after their own kids.

Manuel introduced the Splatsin council to Jacob Marule, an exiled South African member of the African National Congress who had come to Canada and was working on Indigenous rights issues.

Marule advised them on how to mount a political campaign, starting with gathering support from other First Nations. Using the Union of BC Indian Chiefs communications department, the band sent out bulletins and recorded 30-second radio spots asking other nations to join them in a caravan to Vancouver to meet with McCarthy, then the Social Credit human resources minister and deputy premier.

The caravan started in Prince George on Oct. 9, 1980, collecting supporters at stops in Lillooet, Williams Lake, Nanaimo and Mount Currie before heading to Vancouver.

“What I didn’t realize at the time when we were going out to communities is the elders would get up and speak really passionately about children. But they never mentioned one word about the residential school,” Christian said. “I didn’t realize until after, that really what they were talking about was their own experiences, what they didn’t want to happen for the next generation. It didn’t click with me because nobody talked about the horrors of the residential school. This was pre-investigations time.”

When they arrived in Vancouver on Oct. 13, anywhere from 600 to 1,000 men, women and children descended on McCarthy’s Shaughnessy manor, television cameras and journalists in tow. But the deputy premier wasn’t home.

Instead Christian and Manuel had their chance to meet with McCarthy the next day on Jack Webster’s BCTV news show. Caravan participants, the chiefs and deputy minister John Noble also appeared on CKVU’s The Vancouver Show later that evening.

Christian got the opportunity to sit down with McCarthy one-on-one later that week where they hashed out a handwritten agreement to recognize the jurisdiction of the Splatsin people over their own children, hand over the case files of the Splatsin children currently in care and work together to get the federal government to agree to the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation’s child welfare jurisdiction.

Christian remembers McCarthy, who died last year, as somewhat hesitant, but ultimately a pragmatic politician.

“I appreciated her leadership, actually, she took a bold stand and basically agreed,” he said.

McCarthy did have concerns, including whether a nation of 350 people could handle the caseload of 35 kids from the community currently in government care. Would they take those kids out of their foster homes immediately, where some had lived for years? And what if they made a mistake in handling a child’s care?

“I kept reminding her, when we have control of it, if we make a mistake we can correct it. If you guys make a mistake with our children we can’t correct it, it’s under your jurisdiction,” he said.

Nor did the band have any intention of ripping kids out of anyone’s home.

“That would be irresponsible of us. We’ll work with the families and those who want to transition back we’ll do. But those that don’t, we’ll work with those families,” Christian recalled telling the deputy premier. The kind of respect Splatsin families had been denied by government social workers.

“We’re not going to just go in and rip those children out of those families, out of those homes if they’ve been there for awhile. We can’t do that, that’s not our way.”

Christian says the band’s intention was to open the door for other First Nations to follow in their footsteps and create their own child welfare bylaws.

But the federal government quickly changed the law to slam that door shut.

And for years the federal government tried to force the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation to give up their autonomy and agree to operate as a delegated agency under provincial jurisdiction, Christian says. The Splatsin resisted and Christian says it seems the federal government has finally come around to recognizing their jurisdiction almost 40 years later.

Today the Splatsin are in tripartite talks with the provincial and federal governments and other Shuswap nations to recognize all the nations’ jurisdiction over their kids. This would both reduce the number of children going into care and share the burden of running their own child welfare system among the communities in the Secwepemc nation, rather than expecting every community to invest the same time and effort to create and run their own community-sized child welfare systems.

“With all of the pronouncements that have been coming out of Ottawa, it’s like a hail of hallelujahs or something,” he said, referring to the federal Liberals’ child welfare funding announcements and promises of a nation-to-nation relationship.

“It’s great, but we want something concrete.”

The Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation have also faced challenges from the provincial government. Until 2007, the province had an agreement with the nation that if a Splatsin child came into ministry care, the file would be handed to the Splatsin regardless of where in the province the child lived.

Then the BC Liberal government stopped recognizing the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation’s jurisdiction outside its reserve.

“They started to fight us in court. We had about five or six court cases, and we said enough of this,” he said. “We’ve been operating this way for 30-something years and then all of a sudden you guys say no you can’t do it? That’s bullshit.”

The province gave no reason for the change beyond asserting jurisdiction, he said.

The Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation filed a constitutional challenge against the province in 2015. But the Liberal government offered an olive branch in the form of a memorandum of understanding for negotiations with the Splatsin. Talks continue with the current NDP government, but Christian says if they fail his band is prepared to take the province back to court.

Whatever happens, they won’t be going back to the old system where the federal government pays the province to take their children away, he says.

“It is an economic issue,” said Christian. “Our children have become a commodity in the federal-provincial politic, and that’s not right. That’s why we need our own jurisdiction, so the resources can come to us and we can stop that flow of children going into care.”

Coming Monday: In part 10, a look at how the Splatsin approach has transformed child welfare.  [Tyee]

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