In the middle of a four day gathering of indigenous child and family services organizations here in British Columbia. I’m back in my room even though it’s after lunch and our meeting was supposed to have restarted because history just got made.
To understand what this means, you have to have an appreciation of how the state has related to indigenous communities in this country since colonization began. The essence is that tools of law and legislation have been used repeatedly to deny the jurisdiction, rights and responsibilities of First Nations from nearly the moment European governments set eyes on this continent. Nowhere has that become more of a hot point than with the issue of children.
For more than 100 years the stated policy of the federal governments was to place First Nations children into the care of the state and the churches by sending them to residential school. The residential school system was designed originally to educate the “Indian out of the child” and to assimilate people by breaking up communities, punishing kids for speaking their language and subjecting them to slavery, by forcing them to work to keep the schools running. This one policy alone has left a legacy of unhealthy family structures, weakened cultures and multiple generations of vulnerable children. When the provincial government stepped into to take responsibility for children in the 1960s the infamous “sixties scoop” happened whereby kids were removed from their families to be raised by non-native familes. By the 1980s the sixties scoop had ended and the residential school system was shut down. From that time onwards, Aboriginal kids were at the mercy of the non-Aboriginal child welfare system. In BC alone, the percentage of kids in care who were Aboriginal skyrocketed to today where it is now more than 50%.
In the last 20 years, First Nations have become more proactive in creating their own child and family services agencies and taking back responsibility and later control over the system. Starting at a historic meeting in 2002 in Tsawassen, BC, the provincial government began the process of recognizing the authority of First Nations communities to look after their kids. A process that began in 2002 (which I was involved in primarily on Vancouver Island) saw the creation of regional authorities around the province to oversee the establishment of First Nations child welfare systems. These authorities, had they been passed into law, would have taken all responsibility short of law making authority and placed it in the hand of communities through regional authorities.
The problem with the regional authority model was that it didn’t work well with the inherenet jurisdiction of the First Nations governments in BC. Problems began to appear in 2007 between the provincial political leadership and the leaders of the regional authorities. At the last minute, literally as the enabling legislation was to hit to the floor of the Provincial legislature, the provincial political leadership – against the wishes of many First nations cheifs – shut the process down. For a couple of years we were back to the status quo, and things looked grim.
But behind the scenes, the provincial ministry of child and family development was working to transform the child and family services syste. Led by a deputy minister, Leslie Du Toit, the ministry worked to help nations develop their own systems and did it from a position of recognizing the authority and jurisdiction of First Nations to care for their kids. As a result the 15 and more projects that are gathered here got off the ground, reestablishing a child and familiy services system that is deeply ingrained in the cultural, spiritual and political power of the Nations themselves. It has been a hugely decolonizing experience (the children of the Haida Nation even wrote their own declaration of their rights which is to be passed into law).
So things are ticking along and this has brought us to today where we have gathered 120 people to share their experiences and accelerate their work together. It has been a good meeting so far, conducted in ceremony and working productively and positively. Today the deputy minister made an announcement though that has rocked us all. She announced today that provincial government was now opening the door for First Nations and Metis groups in BC to create their own legislation to replace the Child and Family Services Act and to enbale indigenous child and family services systems to be established and supported designed and delivered by the Nations themselves. It is the first time anyone can remember the colonial government ever stepping out of the power they have and giving over the legislative jurisdiction to First Nations.
Suddenly our meeting has got a lot more interesting. Accompanied by the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn A-in-shut Atleo, she stood for the principle that only a system created by the people for whom is it intended will be the right system. Everything we have been working towards suddenly is a reality. The chiefs are excited, the people who have been developing and delivering the indigenous systems are elated that their work will be made the formal system for their people in the province and everyone is buoyed by the right thing happening at the right time.
Suddenly we are all on the same side. My long time mate David Stevenson who is an Art of Hosting steward is right at the centre of the work in his job as the Executive Director of Aboriginal Services for the Ministry. Many other people who were with us through the regionalization process on Vancouver Island including Marion Wright, Kyra Mason, Pearl Hunt, Bruce Parisian and others are here celebrating and preparing for the hard work ahead. We are taking a break now while we get ready to go to the Sts’ailes longhouse for an evening of singing and speaking in ceremony. Tomorrow when we come back to work, we’ve thrown out our agenda and will just spend a half day in Open Space to articulate the opportunities that we have among us, all of us hosting together the very first steps on what will become the next chapter in a historic journey.