COWESSESS FIRST NATION, SASKATCHEWAN — A Saskatchewan First Nation where hundreds of unmarked graves were recently discovered near the site of a former residential school is the first in Canada to take back control of children in care under federal legislation.
"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 — that is Cowessess First Nation," Chief Cadmus Delorme said Tuesday.
The First Nation, east of Regina, is the first to sign an agreement with Ottawa that sees jurisdiction over children returned to the community. Federal legislation enabling an overhaul of Indigenous child welfare was passed in 2019 and came into force last year.
"We never gave up our sovereignty of our children," Delorme said.
The chief signed the agreement alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Scott Moe on the powwow grounds at Cowessess. Nearby is the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
Last month, ground-penetrating radar detected a potential 751 unmarked graves at the site.
Trudeau and Moe also visited the area where the graves are located and heard from survivors.
After walking by hundreds of flags in the ground -- each one indicating a potential grave -- the prime minister and premier knelt and left teddy bears among other stuffed animals, pinwheels and flowers.
One survivor, Debbie Wapamoose, told the politicians that her children taught her how to love again and helped her heal from her experiences at the residential school.
Trudeau offered the group a message of hope and appreciation.
"You matter for what you went through," he said. "You matter for what you still have to share and for what you still have to learn."
At the signing ceremony, Trudeau said it is shameful children died because of a government policy that sent them to residential schools. That legacy must be recognized, he added, and the harm done must not happen again.
"No kids finally will be removed from the communities they are a part of. That is the goal.
"Never again should kids be taken from their homes, families and communities."
An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools between the 1860s and 1996.
The high number of Indigenous children currently in care has been called a legacy of the harm done in the schools.
More than 52 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, despite making up 7.7 per cent of the child population, according to Statistics Canada in 2016.
In Saskatchewan, 86 per cent of about 3,400 kids in care are Indigenous. Of those, 156 are from Cowessess.
Ottawa has said the legislation will reduce the number of Indigenous children in care by affirming the inherent rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.
Under the law, Indigenous groups must give notice of their intent to exercise jurisdiction or request a three-way agreement with the federal and provincial governments.
The groups are to be allowed to develop their own child-welfare laws or bring in traditional ones. Either would prevail over federal and provincial laws.
"Every Indigenous child deserves the best chance and we believe this will benefit their children to have the opportunity to grow up connected to their culture, language, heritage, and community," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in a news release.
Indigenous Services Canada said that, as of June 8, it had received notices to exercise jurisdiction from 38 Indigenous governing bodies representing more than 100 Indigenous groups and communities.
Eighteen discussion tables have been established, it said, including the one with Cowessess First Nation.
There is no funding attached to the legislation. Tuesday's announcement did include a financial commitment from Ottawa for $38.7 million over the next two years for Cowessess.
Saskatchewan will also continue to provide protection services for Cowessess children off-reserve until the community's own program is fully implemented.
The jurisdiction of children in care was removed from Cowessess in 1951. Last year, the First Nation ratified its own laws asserting inherent rights for children and families in need of help.
Delorme said Tuesday’s agreement with the two levels of government is a transition plan to assure the transfer is professional and at the right pace for the First Nation.
Mia Buckles with the Cowessess First Nation's youth council, said she has been impacted by the legacy of residential schools and child welfare — she doesn't know her language and is only now learning about traditions and ceremonies.
She said reclaiming jurisdiction of kids will be a huge first step "to breaking one of the many generational curses that bind us.”
"We are strong. We are resilient. Our people may have been silenced, pushed to the side and buried," she said.
"But we will always come back stronger and louder than ever before."
The extensive overhaul of Indigenous child welfare has faced some criticism since it was brought in with a lack of details and funding commitments.
Provincial ministers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta — where there are many Indigenous children in care — have expressed concern over the law, in particular how it applies to urban Indigenous children or for those with ties to multiple communities.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2021.
Julia Peterson, The Canadian Press