Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the guest of honour at a celebration hosted by Cowessess First Nation on July 6, as three levels of officials gathered to sign the documents to return governance over child services to the community.
Cowessess First Nation is the first Indigenous jurisdiction in Canada to claim its inherent rights to make decisions regarding child and family services for its citizens in need.
“Today is a historical day,” said Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme. “This is where Indigenous people, as rights holders, can create their own laws in a true co-relationship [with the Crown], as treaty was meant to be.”
Trudeau, Delorme and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe were in attendance to finalize the coordination agreement, titled the Miyo Pimatisowin Act.
“This is a step along the journey, one that was identified by Indigenous communities, I think rightly, as being a priority — making sure we recognize the harm done to children in residential schools, the harm done through child and family services, the removal of Indigenous kids who are overrepresented in care,” said Trudeau.
The act was first ratified by Cowessess citizens in March of 2020 and finalized in negotiations with provincial and federal governments over the last year.
It falls under a larger federal act known as Bill C-92, or the Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis Children, Youth and Families, passed in 2019 with the intent of improving child and family services and reducing the number of Indigenous children in government care.
“[Bill C-92] will ensure that as we move forward, kids get the support they need and protection they need, driven by their own communities, in their own languages, in their own cultures,” said Trudeau.
Approximately 86 per cent of children in the care of provincial social services are Indigenous, shared a representative from Cowessess’s youth council, and 150 of those children are from Cowessess First Nation.
Regaining jurisdiction, said Delorme, will return those children to their community and culture to strengthen future generations.
“The coordination agreement focuses on our children, on those kids right now that are in care that think they’re from Cowessess, but don't know what that means,” said Delorme.
As part of the agreement, the federal government will invest $38.7 million over the next two years to support Cowessess as it implements its child and family services system.
The provincial government has also pledged to continue protecting Cowessess First Nation children who are off-reserve during this transition.
Delorme said that this action is the first step of many to dismantle the Indian Act in Canada, in the push towards a long-term goal of self-governance for First Nations people.
As for Cowessess, work will continue with the new Chief Red Bear Children’s Lodge, which will be facilitating child and family services for Cowessess citizens moving forward — including the return of children currently in the social service system.
The Lodge anticipates it will be offering on-reserve prevention and healing supports to Cowessess citizens by fall, with a five-year plan to have fully operational offices on the reservation and in Regina by 2026.
Delorme said that while that work is underway, the Cowessess council will now turn its focus to addressing other governmental institutions in need of change, including land ownership and band membership rules.
“The Indian Act is there and it's real, and it can’t be abolished tomorrow. It has to be at a nation’s pace, to remove themselves from the Indian Act into true self-government,” said Delorme.
Trudeau echoed the statement, adding that the federal government will be following the lead of Indigenous leaders moving forward.
“We need to get out from under the Indian Act, and that’s not something that can take a week,” said Trudeau. “There is a huge range of priorities and the pace at which we move will be dictated by the desire and the leadership of the communities we’re working with.”
PM visits recently discovered gravesite, residential school survivors
Following the signing ceremony, Chief Delorme and the premier also attended the cemetery site where a preliminary radar search in June uncovered an estimated 750 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
In a closed-to-the-public visit, Trudeau met with several residential school survivors from the First Nation and toured the community’s cemetery site.
Delorme said that the weeks following the announcement of the ground-penetrating radar sweep have been difficult for Cowessess.
“When we told the world what we had discovered, it created a little bit of animosity in our own community about how these graves came to be where they are,” said Delorme.
He said that finalizing the reclamation of Cowessess’s jurisdiction over its children in the system — which some contemporary advocates have described as a modernized extension of the residential school system — is a decision that will hopefully offer some healing to the community.
“The coordination agreement is hope,” said Delorme. “Every one of our children that are in care, our homes that need prevention investment right now, [we] can respond so fast. It won’t be magic, but we will respond in a way that’s proactive, and that is empowering.”