Yukon First Nations to assume jurisdiction over child welfare

By Lloyd Dolha

Yukon First Nations are working with opposition parties to bring changes forward to the draft Child and Family Services Act before it is passed into legislation in the current session of the Yukon territorial government, after Premier Dennis Fentie rejected their calls for further talks on the proposed legislation.

“What’s happening is the five First Nations [of the Council of Yukon First Nations] are now working with the opposition to bring amendments forward to the legislation during the debate,” said Lori Duncan, health director of the Council of Yukon Nations.

Yukon First Nations leaders had shown up en masse at the legislature building in Whitehorse on April 10th to protest against the new child and family services act which passed second reading on April 1st. The act, known as Bill 50, will replace the current Children’s Act and aims to define how First Nations foster children will be cared for.

The aboriginal leaders had hoped to block or stall the passage of the bill. Premier Fentie, however, said his government has done all it can to accommodate their concerns. The premier said his Yukon Party government has already spent $2 million and five years of work on consultations on the act.

“The short answer is no, the government will not,” said Fentie during question period. “The government has gone the distance.”

The draft act, which was leaked to the media in January, calls for more First Nations involvement in child and family services planning and delivery. It also recommends mandatory reporting of abuse against children, and a clear intention to place children in care with extended family and within their First Nation when possible. Critics say the draft act is weak and only tinkers with the child welfare system.

The Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) is deeply distressed by the Yukon government’s refusal to take more time to work with the First Nations to get the draft act right.

“The government’s actions are unacceptable and inexplicable,” said Grand Chief Andy Carvill. “We have identified substantive concerns. This is contrary to any sort of collaboration with respect to this important matter.”

Yukon First Nations say the proposed children’s act needs stronger rights and financial supports for extended family members. They say the draft act gives too much power to the director of child and family services in the ministry, and are asking for the addition of a child advocate.

The CYFN believes Bill 50 misses the opportunity to substantively reform the territorial child welfare system so that it supports families and children in crisis. The council believes that if the act is passed as written, it will only continue to perpetuate the current system that they see as confrontational that only fragments families in crisis rather than support them.

“We need a reformed system to establish accountability measures with respect to the decisions and actions of the director of family and children’s services and social workers,” said Carvill. “We need to ensure that Yukon First Nations and their citizens are involved in key decisions that affect our children or share responsibilities with territorial officials.”

“We need to establish alternatives to the court process since its adversarial nature often serves to push aside the best interests of the child,” added the grand chief. “This bill does none of those things.”

The council is further frustrated by the government’s refusal to allow Yukon First Nations as witnesses and speak directly to MLAs when the bill is debated on the floor of the legislature. They say such a strategy is counterproductive to having a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

The First Nations are demanding to have their voices heard as aboriginal children in care make up 80 percent of all the children in care in the territory.

Fentie said to address First Nations concerns would see the Yukon government lose its jurisdiction over aboriginal children in care. “We’re not going to do that,” said the premier in an interview. “ It’s our responsibility, our liability, our costs. If First Nations want to go further than the act today, then they have that ability under their [self-government] agreements.”

He challenged the First Nations to “draw it down” or assume complete jurisdiction over aboriginal child welfare. And that’s exactly what some Yukon First Nations are planning to do.

Justin Ferbey, a senior government official with the Carcross/Tagish First Nation said they have already established their own Family Act and will assume authority for aboriginal child welfare as one of 42 law-making powers they can assume under their self-government agreements.

“We’re now in the implementation of the act and that would secure funding for the program,” said Ferbey.