Atikamekw Nation in Quebec inspiring others with sovereign youth protection

“A child needs to know where they come from: their culture, their values.”

Sophie-Claude MillerAPTN NewsOn the second floor of an office complex in La Tuque, QC., sit the archives of the Atikamekw Nation.Grand Chief Constant Awashish, 37, walks past dozens of filing cabinets and banker’s boxes before making his way straight to a series of cradleboards hanging on the wall.”Tikinakan,” Awashish says, pointing to a cradleboard with a tartan pattern and lace trim.“Tikinakan,” he says again, which he explains is the Atikamekw word for cradleboard.This particular tikinakan appears to be relatively new, although the design is ancient.Awashish is clearly proud of the handiwork of his people, but the reason he is drawn to the tikinakan on the wall on this day is about more than showing off… it’s also thematic.Awashish is here today to discuss child welfare services.”We want to keep the youth close to their languages, close to their identity but if we don’t have the place necessary for them, then they have to go out of the community, which is not good,” said Awashish.Atikamekw is among the strongest Indigenous languages in Canada: 97 per cent of the 7,000 Atikamekw living in three communities in central Quebec speak it as their mother tongue.And Awashish wants to keep it that way.But keeping youth close to the community has been a long-time battle.

Grand Chief Constant Awashish of the Council of the Atikamekw Nation (TOM FENNARIO/APTN)
After decades of having children placed in non-Atikamekw foster homes, last year the Atikamekw became the first, First Nation in Quebec to take over complete jurisdiction of child welfare services.It took 18 years for the Atikamekw to prove to Quebec that they could adequately provide their own services in two of their communities, Manawan and Wemotaci.They now have 80 per cent of foster kids in Atikamekw homes, a complete about-face from 20 years ago when 80 per cent of children were placed in non-Atikamekw homes.”Our system, it’s very communication [oriented] between family, between the community, to make sure that everybody understand what happened, from that we can move on,” said Awashish.He points to one of the differences of the Atikamekw child protection system, which gathers members of a vulnerable child’s extended family together in order to find a solution to putting the child in a foster home.If an agreement can’t be reached amongst extended family, then a “wisdom council” – a group of appointed community members (ranging from elders, to youth, to frontline workers) – weighs in on what course to take with a child that needs intervention.That child is more often than not placed in a foster home in one of the Atikamekw communities.It’s ideas like the wisdom council that has others in Quebec looking to the Atikamekw for inspiration.Inuit in Nunavik (located in subarctic Quebec) invited the Atikamekw to give a presentation on their system last year.”It was very inspirational and empowering,” said Inuk Mina Beaulne, 35, who works as an advisor for the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services.”What the Atikamekw went through in the past is almost the same as what we’re going through right now.”Last year, Quebec’s director of youth protection for the Nunavik region told the Quebec Inquiry into Indigenous Relations with Certain Public Services that since 2017, one in three children in Nunavik have come into contact with youth protection.Much like the Atikamekw, most Inuit speak their mother tongue at home.But unlike the Atikamekw, many Inuit foster children are placed far away from their communities.”A child needs to know where they come from: their culture, their values; so it’s very important to keep them in their communities,” lamented Beaulne from her home in Puvirnituq, QC., near the shore of Hudson Bay.Beaulne, who became an intervention worker when she was 18, said due to factors like overcrowded housing and poor remuneration for Inuit foster families, many Inuit children in care end up over a thousand kilometres away in Montreal with non-Inuit families, where they are in danger of losing their culture and language.As a result, Inuit across Nunavik are in the process of establishing an organization to help ease the burden of foster families.“We are in the very early stages of creating a community organization that will be built by the regional board that will be giving more support to the foster homes to find better ways in keeping children in their communities,” explains Beaulne, who hopes to have pilot projects running in some of Nunavik’s 14 communities by the fall.Back in Atikamekw territory, resources for foster families have also become a point of discussion.
Suzanne Chilton in front of the Wemotaci First Nation daycare where she works (TOM FENNARIO/APTN)
Suzanne Chilton runs the daycare in the Atikamekw community of Wemotaci, where she has – on average – 48 children a day in her care.Aside from looking after the community’s youngest, she has also been a foster mother for 12 years.”Oh, my god, it’s not easy, to be a foster family in your community because social services ask you to follow certain rules, but when the parents, for example, don’t have the right to contact the kids, but they live 200, 300 feet from your place, you can’t control it,” said Chilton, who would like to see more training for foster families, and to have more of a say in policies going forward.But perhaps, most importantly, Chilton wants more resources for parents who lose their children.”We have to help them, give them tools, so that they can retake their path with their children,” said Chilton in French.Still, while many First Nations are anxious that Canada’s new child welfare services bill will not grant full jurisdiction in the upcoming legislation, the Atikamekw Nation already having taken control of their child welfare is a victory for Indigenous sovereignty.As Grand Chief Awashish notes, the idea is to make sure the Atikamekw cradleboards keep getting used.”There’s a saying, it takes a community to raise a kid,” Awashish adds, “that’s what we’re trying to apply to our system.”