Opaskwayak Cree Nation moves to take back child welfare responsibilities

Opaskwayak Cree Nation is one of the first communities in Manitoba to look at gaining control over child welfare in the community under Bill C-92 – the federal government’s legislation, which came into effect in January.

This week, leadership signed a declaration to further pursue the development of what they call Wahkohtowin law, or a Cree child welfare law in the community.

Onekanew Christian Sinclair says this move has been a long time coming.

“This has been discussed and pursued by many past leaders of Opaskwayak Cree Nation… the idea is not new but the fact that the federal government announced Bill C-92 in January has allowed us to be able to pursue what we need to on our terms as a sovereign nation,” he said.

Opaskwayak will be hosting community consultations beginning next month to determine what the new law will look like.

The community is also putting together a group health, child and family services and education workers along with local elders and representatives with lived experiences to help oversee the creation of the law.

“Our objective is to put a Cree lens on this law because the provincial laws that exist right now that have been applied and imposed on Indigenous families and children is not based on realities of the community,” said Harold Cochrane, one of the lawyers helping to draft the law.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation
The signing ceremony on Opaskwayak Cree Nation. Photo courtesy: Tiar Wheatle.

Cochrane added process requires a full comprehensive review of current provincial child welfare laws.

Under the legislation First Nations have to give notice they are seeking jurisdiction. Provinces are then required to consult with communities to create a plan moving forward. If this is not done within a year the federal government will intervene and force the transfer to the community.

There is no funding attached to the legislation, but the federal government signed an agreement with the Assembly of First Nations earlier this month to establish a “joint fiscal table.” It was described as a forum for Ottawa and First Nations to negotiate funding agreements for communities that develop their own child welfare laws.

Opaskwayak Cree Nation is one of the more prosperous First Nations in Manitoba with several business ventures including investments in the recreational cannabis industry.

Sinclair said the band has provided $500,000 of it’s own funds to help draft the law.

There are currently 130 kids in care on reserve and approximately 65 off reserve, according to band leadership.

Opaskwayak hopes to have the law drafted by October and it come into force one year later in October 2021.

With files from Canadian Press

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