The Penticton Indian Band appears to be seeing a bit of forward movement on child welfare issues after 70 people marched on the local Ministry of Children and Family Development offices last October.
“I was in Victoria a couple weeks ago, and we were able to have a conversation about how we’re going to resolve some of the longstanding conflict and the child apprehension issues that are happening and service delivery stuff that’s going on,” PIB Chief Chad Eneas said.
Eneas spoke to the Western News at the tail end of another rally held by the band Monday afternoon, this time in response to not-guilty verdicts handed down in two separate second-degree murder cases with Indigenous victims in the past month.
Eneas said the band now has access to sit directly with Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy since the October rally, in which PIB members, with the support of ONA leaders, marched from the Okanagan River Channel at Green Mountain Road to the MCFD offices, where ministry staff met the group in the parking lot.
“We were able to set up a direct table with the minister, the provincial minister, and we’re hoping to bring forward the concerns of trying to get enough capacity, resourcing, so that we can put together a longer-term plan that includes community consultation for longer-term resolution.”
Eneas said he’s “hopeful,” but noted it would be take resources and co-ordination between PIB and MCFD to get that plan in place.
Previously, MCFD staff typically worked with local groups to try to keep children in the community when parents are unable to take care of them, but following the government turnover in last year’s election, MCFD staff have come onto PIB to take children without those consultations.
But at the same time, he took aim at the inequities between supports for child welfare on reserve and those same supports off reserve.
“What they get on the reserve is probably about 40 per cent of what they get off the reserve when it comes to kids in care in terms of the support, financial support to make sure the kids have what they need,” Eneas said, adding that the disparity appears to give incentives to take kids off the reserve.
Eneas said when he spoke with Conroy, he did appear to get some sympathy from the provincial minister.
“The whole child welfare and child apprehension model is not working,” he said. “She didn’t use those words, but we’ve got to do something different, so we can keep the children at home and make sure that the efforts are collaborative.”
In a statement, Conroy said she had “a very good discussion” with Eneas.
“Senior ministry officials will be visiting in the near future to continue the work and look at ways we can make real changes for Indigenous children and families,” Conroy said.
The federal government has pushed much of the same rhetoric in recent days, but Eneas said he is skeptical of the government, which has seen widespread criticism among Indigenous communities in Canada for talking big but lacking substance on Indigenous issues.
All the more poignant, Tina Fontaine, one of the two Indigenous youths in the prairies whose deaths recently led to not-guilty verdicts, had been under care of the Manitoba government’s child welfare system when her body was found wrapped up in a duvet weighed down by rocks in a river.
“It’s that intergenerational trauma that’s created. The things that we learn when we’re young, we carry them with us for the rest of our life, and you can’t erase that,” Eneas said.
“It’s unfortunate that somebody had to lose their life for that to become more apparent, but it’s always been wrong. Kids in care don’t get the attention that they need.”
As for finding a resolution, Eneas said PIB is known for its ability to carve out innovations, saying change on MCFD’s child apprehension “cannot be developed in the boardroom, it cannot be developed by a bunch of lawyers.
“For us, the word suknaqinx, it kind of means ‘the ones that carry the message to the top (of the hill).’ And in our history, the Penticton Indian Band’s expression has always been to develop models that are showcased, like our comprehensive community plan,” he said, adding a new child welfare plan can only be developed at the community level.
“That was what the people did. They ran and carried the message to the top of (the valley).”