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Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug celebrates First Nation-led child and family law, one of the few in Canada

Standing on a stage in a room filled with community members, band councillors and government ministers, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) Chief Donny Morris called this an emotional day for his community.

“We are taking back how we are raising our children,” Morris said Tuesday.

The First Nation, with roughly 960 people living in the fly-in community 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., is taking back jurisdiction over child and family services with the passage of it own law and creation of its own family welfare agency, called Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Dibenjikewin Onnakonikewin (KIDO). In the local Anishininiimowin language, KIDO means Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Family Law.

“We’re going to be moving forward, and moving forward means everybody has to play a role — chief and council, families, organizations — each and every one of us will come together to make our community go forward to a brighter future, a prosperous community and our children to have stable homes growing up,” Morris said during his speech.

This is just the second First Nation in Ontario — the other is Wabaseemoong Independent Nation, an Ojibway First Nation northwest of Kenora — and seventh across Canada to have its own child and family services law take effect with the full force of federal law, as set out in Bill C-92 regarding Indigenous child welfare authorities.

A co-ordination agreement was signed between KI, Ontario and Canada to set out the official transition of authority over child and family services in the First Nation. As part of the negotiations, the federal government has agreed to provide $93.8 million over four years to support KI in implementing its law. The Ontario government is still negotiating with KI for a funding agreement, according to a news release.

“I didn’t think I would survive just to see this day,” Clara Sainnawap, an elder in the Oji-Cree First Nation, said in Anishininiimowin, with Angus Chapman translating her words into English.

The onaakonikewin (law) officially went into effect on April 1, but work on it within the First Nation has been going on for many years, Samuel McKay told CBC News. McKay was the project manager for the development of KI’s family law.

Elders and community leaders had begun work to draft the law back in 2007, long before the federal government was talking about handing jurisdiction over child and family welfare back to Indigenous communities. At the time, leaders in KI were developing the law based not on federal legislation, but on their inherent right and responsibilities given to them by the Creator to govern their own people, McKay said.

That work was sidetracked when six members of KI’s council, including McKay, were sentenced to six months in jail after they refused to allow mining company Platinex to start drilling on their land, despite a court injunction permitting the company to do so.

A man stands at a podium with a First Nation flag behind him.
Samuel McKay, project co-ordinator for Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug’s family law, says the new law will focus on supporting and keeping families together, and in the First Nation. (Submitted by TAG Creative Strategy)

Efforts to return to the law picked up in earnest in 2018, McKay said, and was approved after extensive community meetings and consultations.

McKay told CBC News that provincial legislation has always been very focused on protecting the child, but KI’s new law will emphasize supporting the entire family. Elders in the community said this new law must be based on love, forgiveness and respect, and not cause further traumatization to children or the families.

“That’s what KIDO is all about — rebuilding our nation, our families, our children.”

McKay added that the newly formed agency will continue to work alongside Tikinagan Child and Family Services. It’s been providing child welfare services to 30 First Nations across northern Ontario since becoming the first Indigenous-controlled agency to be recognized as a child protection agency in the province in the 1980s.

When federal Minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu rose to speak during the signing ceremony Tuesday, she acknowledged the words of Sainnawap.

“One simple sentence — she’s waited a long time for this day,” Hajdu said of the elder. “That means that she saw for a long time the hurt and harm that families were facing as a result of discriminatory and systemically racist child and family services that tore people apart, that didn’t provide the kinds of supports that families need, that didn’t acknowledge the inherent right of this community to stay whole.”

The minister said the creation of KIDO represents a turning point, that KI is able to reassert their inherent rights and laws, and receive the funding needed to implement that law.

Following the signing ceremony, the KI held a community feast to celebrate the law’s creation.

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