Weeks after failings in NWT child welfare were in part blamed on a major reorganization, the federal government signalled another big shift is on the way.

At the start of December, Ottawa announced it is working with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis groups to pass legislation that will hand control of relevant child welfare responsibilities to Indigenous governments.

The move is long sought-after by many Indigenous groups and has been welcomed by all parties – but suggests a further period of upheaval ahead for staff, families, and children.

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The Dene National Chief, Norman Yakeleya, called the federal proposals “a huge step.” The territorial government said it had seen no draft legislation but agreed with Ottawa’s intent.

Jane Philpott, the federal Minister of Indigenous Services, said in a statement: “Moving forward with federal legislation on First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation child and family services is a vital step toward ensuring Indigenous children are never again forcibly taken from their homes without their parents’ consent.”

In November, territorial Health and Social Services Minister Glen Abernethy told Cabin Radio the NWT was already delivering on that point, through its Building Stronger Families approach to ensuring children remain with family where possible.

Impacts and implications

Currently, child welfare services in the NWT are overseen by the territory’s Department of Health and Social Services and delivered through three health authorities.

The largest is called the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (or NTHSSA) and was created by amalgamating six regional authorities in 2016.

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The other two are a separate authority in Hay River, which has yet to amalgamate, and the Tłı̨chǫ Community Services Agency, which was created through the Tłı̨chǫ Self Government Agreement.

Federal legislation moving responsibility for the wellbeing of Indigenous children to Indigenous governments could profoundly alter those arrangements.

Details of how that legislation would work are currently thin on the ground. However, in a statement, Ottawa said it had maintained “a productive and ongoing dialogue with provinces and territories” since the summer.

Asked for its response, the territorial government told Cabin Radio it “agrees with the federal government’s intention and will continue to work to reduce the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in our child welfare system.”

The territorial government, in a statement, added it had not received any draft legislation to examine.

“Once we have received a copy of the draft legislation, we will review it thoroughly and determine any impacts and implications that it may have on the delivery of child and family services in the NWT,” that statement concluded.

The federal government will aim to pass the legislation before the next federal election, scheduled for the fall of 2019.

Fundamental change

Earlier in the fall, the office of Canada’s Auditor General released a follow-up report on child protection in the NWT in which auditors claimed some services had worsened since an already disappointing initial review in 2014.

The resulting outcry led to a vote of confidence regarding Abernethy’s position, which he survived.

In attempting to explain why some services appeared to have deteriorated, Abernethy said one cause was the transformation – in 2015 and 2016 – from six health authorities to one, larger authority.

In response to the 2014 report, Abernethy told reporters, his staff had been asked to make many changes to how they worked at the same time as cope with that broader reorganization.

“That’s an awful lot to ask of employees, to not only change the structure and nature of how you report and work, but also to fundamentally change how you think about your job,” said Abernethy.

Abernethy has demanded his department make further, carefully chosen changes in the next two years to address the Auditor General’s most recent concerns.

That work may have to take place alongside renewed organizational change, depending on what is contained within the forthcoming federal legislation.

‘A chance for our people to step up’

“I’ve always stated that issues with foster care and child welfare belong at a local level,” Dene National Chief Yakeleya, who was formerly a territorial MLA, told Cabin Radio.

“The territorial government is not doing good work, as you see in the Auditor General’s report. It is a scathing report. There are a lot of Aboriginal children in foster care and, once they are in that system, it is pretty hard to get them out.

“The communities will deal with it through their own Indigenous culture and traditions, in their own way. It’s a shift of mindsets. It’s a shift to the way Aboriginal people look at families, not the way government looks at families.”

Asked how Indigenous governments might prepare for greater control of what has proved an extraordinarily difficult service to deliver across Canada – and the perils associated with another reorganization – Yakeleya said: “There is a lot of responsibility. I think that’s good.”

He continued: “It gives a chance for our people to step up to the plate. The political powers-that-be have opened up the doors, and it is our turn.

“There is nothing more important than to raise our own children in our own cultures and our own communities, with our own values.”

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