Children First Forum in Penticton

The Children First Forum held in Penticton on Jan. 27 was a continuation of work begun several years ago.

The Children First Forum held in Penticton on Jan. 27 was a continuation of work begun several years ago.

“When the government was funding our Indigenous Approach project, we developed the Syilx Children and family services plan,” said Jennifer Houde, child and family and health services manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

“We developed our own child and family plan based on how Syilx people would look after, care for and protect our own children,” said Houde.

Governments and ministers change, as did the focus.

“The MCFD has very much backed away from discussion with First Nations people about the care of their own children,” said Houde. “We have revitalized our Children First Forum to really say we want action as well. We don’t want to have the continued rhetoric that children are important, that we all acknowledge poverty and challenges.”

On Jan. 26, Canadian Human Rights Tribunal handed down a decision that the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere. With that decision on the table, the Children First Forum provided an important opportunity to bring Okanagan Nation representatives, community, federal and provincial governments and agencies, in an effort to build and renew partnerships.

“Our chiefs invited these people here to really discuss what are we going to do in the Okanagan to put children first,” said Houde. “We still have quite a number of children in care and our communities don’t have equal access to services in the Okanagan. It puts our children in a vulnerable state.

“We want to ensure that we create as much space as possible to develop and maintain real partnerships with government organizations.”

Houde said they are hoping the forum results in action, and an important first step would be a renewed commitment to partnership with First Nations.

“We hear people talk and say what the hopes are, and ‘yes we are going to create change,’ but we don’t really see it on the ground,” said Houde. “We go to provincial meetings and they continue to come to the table. We are saying, let’s create the table in the nation and make sure that change happens here for our children.”

Programs, services and funding are allocated within the ministry without any engagement with First Nations, according to Houde.

“We don’t even get a say in what would be appropriate. What do we see as the priorities? What is the most effective use of the very limited resources the MCFD has?” asked Houde. “Our children really fall through the gaps. Because we don’t have those funds to engage in those discussions, they just get wider.”

The forum had a variety of speakers including Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.


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