Wahkohtowin Child Care Society opens off-reserve office in Edmonton

Saddle Lake Cree Nation Chief Jason Whiskeyjack cuts the ribbon to mark the grand opening of the Wahkohtowin Child Care Society’s first off-reserve office on June 25.

By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – Drummers drummed in celebration almost immediately after Saddle Lake Cree Nation Chief Jason Whiskeyjack cut the ribbon to mark the grand opening of the Wahkohtowin Child Care Society’s first off-reserve office on June 25. 

The celebratory mood reflected the fact that the northwest Edmonton office’s opening represents one step towards Saddle Lake bringing home its 271 children in the off-reserve child welfare system. 

Wahkohtowin means family in Cree. 

“Everybody knows it’s a tough, tough battle for our people when they need the services and it’s hard for them to get the services, so now we’re bringing the services to them,” Chief Whiskeyjack said in his official remarks. 

Saddle Lake band councillor Pauline Hunter highlighted the history that brought attendees to this moment, describing the provincial child welfare system as “phase two” of residential schools, which were designed to forcibly alienate Indigenous children from their culture, language and history.

The federal government agreed to pay a $23-billion settlement to First Nations children who survived a systematically underfunded on-reserve child welfare system last year after fighting Indigenous children in court for 16 years. The feds, however, continue to fight a class action suit from survivors of the off-reserve system, which is held up in the appeals process. 

Indigenous children are far more statistically likely to be taken away from their parents than settler children. Indigenous kids represent 7.7 per cent of the population under 14 years of age, yet represent 53.8 per cent of all children in foster care

“Many of our children are still being taken away and now they’re in the arms of the province,” said Hunter.  

The Wahkohtowin society’s band designates, she added, aim to rectify this by tracking down young band members in Edmonton and elsewhere “to reconnect them to who they are.”

Denise Steinhauer was the sole band designate for 15 years until her colleague Kimberley Pearson was hired this year in anticipation of the off-serve office opening. 

Steinhauer told Alberta Native News that more than half of the off-reserve Saddle Lake children in the child welfare system are located in Edmonton, although Saddle Lake members can be found across Canada. 

“They always vary,” she said of the numbers of children in provincial custody, “because kids go home sometimes and then there’s others that come in. It fluctuates.” 

Those in other provinces, however, are less likely to be connected with their band, as tracking them through various provincial bureaucracies poses a major challenge.

Chief Whiskeyjack questioned why province’s maintain jurisdiction over Indigenous kids in the child welfare system when First Nations signed their Treaties and are registered with the federal government.

“We always say we’re a federal people, so why are [provincial authorities] having access to our children who are federally registered? That doesn’t really make any sense, so we have to try and fix that. We have to address it,” Whiskeyjack told this newspaper. 

Provincial authorities don’t necessarily notify First Nations when its members are brought into the child welfare system, making it more difficult to reconnect with the kids, he added. 

“We have to try and educate our people and let them know that we do care, and we want to provide the services to actually help them with their lineage within the nation, so that [they’re] not forgotten,” said Whiskeyjack. 

Pearson will work out of the Edmonton office, advocating for Saddle Lake kids to their caseworkers in the city and surrounding communities, including Leduc, St. Albert and Sherwood Park. Steinhauer is responsible for the children elsewhere in Alberta, from Calgary and Lethbridge in the south to Athabasca, Westlock, Lac La Biche and St. Paul in the north. 

The ultimate goal is to have them come back to the reserve, which is located 171 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, near St. Paul. 

“At the end of the day, we have to bring the children back to our nation,” said Chief Whiskeyjack. 

Steinhauer said she’s going to be bringing a few dozen Saddle Lake kids from across the province to the reserve for a camp program in late July, which she’s done for years as a means of connecting kids with their culture and identity. 

“The connection is there, and it’s on the land. Our ancestors are there in spirit and I really believe that the children need to come back home to experience that connection spiritually,” said Steinhauer. 

“If they want to be connected to their identity, their languages their culture, that’s where it’s at.”

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