Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signed a landmark agreement that will see Canada return child welfare responsibilities to Cowessess First Nation, which he described as a critical step in reducing the number of Indigenous children in the foster care system.
Trudeau travelled to the Saskatchewan community this afternoon to announce the agreement alongside Chief Cadmus Delorme and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe.
“Never again should kids be taken from their homes, families and communities,” Trudeau said at the ceremony to commemorate the agreement.
“Kids need to be kept by, protected by, supported by, and taught by their communities.”
Today marked Trudeau’s first visit to Cowessess since the nation announced the preliminary discovery of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Residential School in June.
WATCH: Child welfare responsibilities returned to Cowessess First Nation:
According to the federal government, Indigenous children account for 52.2 per cent of children in foster care under the age of 14, despite that group making up just 7.7 per cent of all children under 14.
A representative of the Cowessess youth council said that about 150 children from the community are now in foster care.
“It’s their time to receive the opportunity to come home and heal with their own families,” said Mia Buckles.
Canada’s foster care system has been described as a modern day version of the country’s residential school system, which sought to strip Indigenous children of their language, culture and break ties to their home communities.
Agreement is first under legislation introduced in 2019
The agreement between Cowessess and Canada is the first signed under new legislation introduced in 2019 — the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families — which seeks to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care and improve family services.
Ottawa is committing $38.7 million over the next two years to help Cowessess establish its own child and family services system.
“Today is a historical day because we never gave up our sovereignty to our children,” said Delorme during his remarks at the ceremony.
He said the goal of the agreement is to one day keep all Cowessess children out of Canada’s foster care system. Delorme said Cowessess has not had decision-making power over children in care since 1951.
“We have a lot of work to do. And every day we will roll up our sleeves to make sure that every child, when we call them home, that they know where home is, and that is Cowessess First Nation,” Delorme said. “They will dance, they will get their education, and they will walk with their chin up and be a proud Cowessess citizen.”
Trudeau said the government is working with other First Nations to reach similar agreements.
In addition to changes to child welfare programs, Trudeau said agreements to transfer power to First Nations in areas such as education, health care and business are also possible.
“The pace at which we move will be dictated by the desire and the leadership of the communities we work with,” he said.