Developing Wakohtowin Child and Family Services Law

Developing Wakohtowin Child and Family Services Law

At the end of this calendar year, Opaskwayak should have its own Wakohtowin Child and Family Services Law. This law is being created under a process set out in federal legislation called, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families, which is often called Bill C-92.

Our community started developing Wakohtowin Law in the summer of 2020. Opaskwayak was the first community in the province to let the federal government know that we would be making changes to how the child welfare system would handle our children.

“We are essentially taking out what doesn’t work for us in the Manitoba Child Welfare Act & replacing it with principles and legislation that support the prevention and preservation of families,” said Martha Budd-Genaille, Wakohtowin Administrator. “We aren’t interested in how things have been done in the past because we know removing children from families does not work for our people. We are committed in advocating for members, and aligning our prevention services with other resources to support families.“

We are committed in advocating for members, and aligning our prevention services with other resources to support families.“
– Martha Budd-Genaille, Wakohtowin Administrator

While some communities have already signed agreements, Opaskwayak has chosen to write our own law, from start to finish, based on community engagement. There is some coordination with Misipawistik Cree Nation and Berens River when it comes to sharing experiences, as all three communities prepare the completion of their own laws.

“We continually attempt to address gaps in the current child welfare system by improving services, speaking to funding shortfalls and moving away from the status quo,” said Budd-Genaille. “Therefore, our intent is to include all of Opaskwayak, including on- and off-reserve, in having a say on how our law will be drafted.”

So far there have been three community meetings on this issue in both Opaskwayak and Winnipeg. Community consultation was a challenge from the start because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so other measures were taken to ensure many voices could be heard including creating working groups and having a lot of meetings online.

“In previous community engagement, we have asked for support in speaking to areas that need changes by including voices from Elders, youth, parents, staff, and our legal counsel into this law,” said Budd-Genaille. “Knowledge that includes going back to our own traditional ways. In order to do this, a working group was established and it entitles hearing from Elders and traditional knowledge carriers, many of whom talk about the importance of going back to the basics and the beginning of creation.”

The Wakohtowin working group consists of staff from every department within Child and Family Services including income assistance, as well as staff from the Health, Infrastructure, Education Services, and Lands and Natural Resources branches. Other working group members include economist Mark Anielski, child welfare consultant Elsie Flette and Elder Irene Young. The legal team working on the Wakohtowin Law are from Saunders-Delaronde.

Members of the Wakohtowin Working Group Meeting pose in front of a photo of a horse.
Councillor Edwin Jebb, Chief Sidney Ballantyne, Child and Family Caring Society of Canada Executive Director Cindy Blackstock, Wakohtowin Consultant Elsie Flette, Misipawistik Councillor Annie Ballantyne and Misipawistik Chief Heidi Cook during a Wakohtowin Working Group Meeting.

The Elders and Knowledge Carriers that Child and Family Services work with have said that, as Swampy Cree, our community have always lived in accordance with natural laws given by the Creator and since creation, we were taught Wakohtowin (relations and kinship).

This natural law has eroded with time and colonization. Our ways of life as individuals, family and as a community have been interrupted and ignored due to colonial laws and policies imposed on our people. A few of the bigger traumatic experiences of First Nations people include the Residential School System, the ‘60s scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, and the on-going millennial scoop, also known as the current child welfare system.

According to the Executive Director, the Opaskwayak Child and Family Services Branch is pleased the Wakohtowin Child and Family Law is being developed by Opaskwayak members.

“We are proud of the fact the legal framework of Bill C-92 is grounded in Wakohtowin because in relationship, we all matter,” said Myrna Flett, Executive Director of Opaskwayak Child and Family Services. “And our relationship with the Creator has always shown us that teachings come in seven.”

This is why there are 7 different parts to the Wakohtowin Child and Family Law: 

  1. Key Principles and the best interests of the Opaskwayak Child;
  2. Governance and oversight;
  3. Prevention services;
  4. Intervention;
  5. Dispute Resolution;
  6. Long Term Care for Opaskwayak Children; and
  7. Inter-relation of Wakohtowin Law with other laws.

Through this Bill C-92 Process, Opaskwayak will also commit to the development of a Wakohtowin Well-being Service Delivery Model. This is an outline for Opaskwayak to follow when it comes to delivering programs and services. The Wakotowin Service Delivery Model will essentially turn this law, along with all our programs and services, into reality.

The Executive Director says this will go hand in hand with the Wakohtowin Child and Family Law and that one is not above the other.

“The Wakohtowin Child and Family Law and Well-being Service Delivery Model will replace the current provincial child welfare system so that Opaskwayak children and families are served, supported, valued and kept together in the same homes,” said Flett.

The Wakohtowin Law will be nationally recognized. This means that in the future, if any Opaskwayak member becomes involved in the child welfare system in Canada, those provinces have to respect the Wakohtowin Law and will have to notify Opaskwayak. 

Before any of that can happen, the Opaskwayak Child and Family Services Branch continues to have further engagement sessions with families and community.

The branch expects to have another round of community meetings this spring and summer. Once the dates have been confirmed, they will be posted on the Opaskwayak website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

To hear more about the Wakohtowin Child and Family Services Law, please contact:

Charity Ridderikoff, Wakohtowin Assistant
Phone: 204-627-7240

This story was first published in the Spring 2023 Report to the Community.