The Cowessess First Nation became the first Canadian Indigenous community on Tuesday to sign an agreement with the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments under Canada’s landmark Bill C-92 passed in 2019. The subsequent legislation empowered Indigenous communities to reclaim jurisdiction based on their own history, culture and laws. The jurisdiction is recognized as federal law and is prioritized over provincial and family services laws. Notably, Cowessess First Nation announced the discovery of an estimated 751 unmarked graves near a former residential school in Saskatchewan earlier this month.
A ceremony and signing celebration took place at the Cowessess First Nation Powwow Grounds, where the First Nation team finalized the agreement with the governments. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe travelled to the Saskatchewan community to announce the agreement with Chief Cadmus Delorme.
Before the agreement signing, Chief Delorme explained the state of affairs of children in care, stating that jurisdiction over such children has been removed from the First Nation since 1951, such that non-Indigenous laws governed the final decision-making and judicial decision-making processes. However, a positive step was taken under Bill C-92 in March 2020, when the Cowessess First Nation passed legislation intended to give Indigenous communities greater control over child welfare in their communities while reducing the number of Indigenous children in foster care. He added that the responsibility for children in care is:
Part of the long-term goal of controlling our own plan to self-government based on our Inherent Rights and Treaty relationship. The coordination agreement is a transition plan to assure the transfer of jurisdiction is professional and at the pace of Cowessess First Nation. The fiscal agreement confirms the investment the Government of Canada and Government of Saskatchewan takes in supporting the Cowessess First Nation.
The current Canadian system has been criticized for several shortcomings, such as not meeting the cultural needs of Indigenous children and their consistent overrepresentation in the care system. In 2016, federal data found that over 52.2 percent of children under age 15 in foster care were Indigenous, despite only representing 7.7 percent of the child population.
To help the Cowessess community establish its independent child and family services system, Ottawa will contribute $38.7 million over the next two years. Other Indigenous groups have also shown intentions to control their child and family services regimes.
Furthermore, Trudeau has indicated that the Canadian government is working with other First Nation communities to establish similar agreements. In addition to bringing changes to the child welfare programs, such agreements will possibly transfer control in other areas such as education, health care and business.