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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Cree Youth Protection Commission launches public consultations

BY Patrick Quinn Sep 9, 2023

The Cree Health Board’s recently created Youth Protection Commission wants your input on how to improve the region’s child welfare services by adapting Quebec’s Youth Protection Act to Cree cultural values and realities. 

After internal discussions with frontline workers this summer, a public consultation process is launching September 7. Changing the youth protection system has been one of the biggest priorities of board chairperson Bertie Wapachee’s mandate and something people have long been calling for. 

“Many felt it was a repetition of the old residential school approach, coming in and taking your child away,” Wapachee told the Nation. “We have more than enough funding and resources. It’s just not working in favour of our youth. The only way to change the system is to change the legislation.”

Having worked in youth protection 30 years ago, Wapachee recognizes that families and communities need to be more accountable and involved in finding solutions. He asserts that the system is sometimes abused by parents, with the Department of Youth Protection (DYP) expected to play a babysitting role.

“We go into a party, take the child out, wait for the party to be over and bring them back,” said Wapachee. “That’s been the system. There are no consequences on parents – the system has to change and focus on the family.”

A larger goal of the consultations is to spread awareness about the real purpose of youth protection. While community members are encouraged to call the YP hotline if they believe a child is at risk, health board executive director Daniel St-Amour suggested that this is resulting in too many unnecessary investigations. 

“There’s no way 30% of the kids are in trouble,” asserted St-Amour. “If you use the DYP every time you don’t agree with how the parent raises the child then you’ll end up with very many signalements. DYP should be a last resort.”

Reports have previously been made because a child wasn’t registered in hockey (supposedly suggesting poverty) or took their parents’ car for a joyride, situations that St-Amour believes could be better resolved through local staff at Community Miyupimaatsiiun Centres (CMCs). With a limited number of specialized personnel, this YP commission will enable the CBHSSJB to better allocate resources to where they make the most impact.

In recent years, the health board has been optimizing various departments for efficiency and integration of Cree values. An emerging preventative model of care involves a healthcare team evaluating a family altogether, inspired by services in Alaska that found 51% of physical ailments had a mental health component potentially influenced by hereditary patterns. 

While substantial investments and developments were made to the DYP following an audit in 2016, outcomes have remained similar. To adapt the youth protection law to Cree realities, it was determined that a regional commission could most effectively make recommendations that will be supported by both the people and various levels of government.

Former CBHSSJB chairperson Bella Petawabano and psychologist Lorraine Spencer, founder of Siikuun healing retreat, are the commissioners (chaashtipishtihch) tasked with examining issues faced by Cree people in YP and youth criminal justice. In developing their recommendations, they will be reaching out to other Cree entities, provincial stakeholders and Indigenous best practices. 

“When you want to make a systemic change, you have to look at the root of the problem,” said Spencer. “We’re hoping the community will come out in force to speak to these issues and come up with the solutions with us – it’s in their power to actually make those changes that need to be made.”

While the Atikamekw Nation made their own changes to Quebec’s YP Act in 2018, the Cree Nation’s more developed resources and healthcare autonomy provide a unique opportunity to fully decolonize the region’s child welfare system. The commissioners believe that guiding in the right direction, or maamiinupitihtaau, means learning from both beneficial traditional practices and the legacy of colonization. 

The Cree Nation adopted the YP law in 1979 along with the rest of the province, one year after the Cree Health Board and other institutions were formed out of the JBNQA. At the time, it was unheard of for Indigenous people to control their own institutions, so Petawabano said they were “modelled on the white man’s.”  

Since then, explained Petawabano, “change has come so quickly that we didn’t have time to adapt ourselves to the law. We figured since these were white man’s problems, it was best to deal with them with their programs. We did not think of our knowledge, our medicines, our Cree way of being.”

Petawabano said her generation of residential school survivors had to relearn how to live off the land and “follow the rhythms of the seasons.” To her, the YP commission’s Cree name, aah chishtipistihch awaash-uschiniichisiu sikischaayimuwiniyiu, reflects that feeling of being secure that they once had.

“Now we have the chance to do what we should have done 45 years ago,” Petawabano said. “The Cree culture is the foundation of where we need to start. We still have our Elders to carry on those teachings – we can look at what’s helped us in the past. There’s an erosion that’s already happening. Time is working against us.”

Recalling the proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child,” Petawabano said they need community stakeholders to be part of the change. The commission’s results are expected to guide holistic changes to the Cree healthcare system, including the development of two planned youth mental health facilities.  

“Let’s make self-government work for us,” urged Petawabano. “All we have to do is work together and put our resources together to maximize what we can do for our youth and families.” 

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Bella Petawabano’s explanation of intergenerational trauma

I had prepared a document some time ago on my own personal explanation of what took place when we talk about intergenerational trauma. My great-grandson will be celebrating his second birthday in a few months. He’s the fourth residential school generation. That means I’m the first. I’m a residential school survivor. My parents didn’t speak any English or French. Just Cree and they lived off the land all their lives and that’s how they raised us prior to us going through that system. 

It’s less than 50 years ago. I was young then. That’s when the Cree Health Board came to be, one of the institutions created from the JBNQA. It has its laws and policies that were not Cree. We adopted how things were done outside Eeyou Istchee. Many people my age came out of being many years in residential school in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many of us had been away since we were four or five years old. We were very young only to return as we became young adults. We came home trying to learn the skills of life on the land. I’m sure some of us felt some shame learning skills as a young adult that should have been learned as a child. 

We had to relearn the language because it was forbidden for us to speak it in residential schools. We came back to traditional food. Some of us had loved and missed it while we were away, but some of us had acquired a taste for the white man’s food. During those years we were away, we had time to forget about our language and our values, which are the basis of who we are. We interacted like the white man. We didn’t have a choice. We also wanted to live like the white man, let’s face it. 

When we came home from residential school, some of us were eager to return to our families and the Cree way of life, to live on the land with the family and follow the rhythms of the seasons. To live off the animals we harvested, to eat whenever we were hungry and not be dictated by the clock and feel happy and secure. This is something that we missed in residential school – think of that. 

We did not have much but we did not consider ourselves poor. But we had shelter, we had food, we were together with our families, we felt secure. We were family. To me, this is why we call the youth protection commission aah chishtipistihch awaash-uschiniichisiu sikischaayimuwiniyiu, the feeling of being secure, this is what we once had in my generation. What happens four generations later, we can only imagine. 

When the hydro-electric project was announced in the early 1970s, our people still lived on the land. Guess who came to the forefront to fight the battle of the century? It was the Indian Residential School youth who came home because they were able to speak, read and write the white man’s language. Our generation only had the experience of being born on the land. The hunters and trappers came out of their hunting territories to support the youth and they appeared in court to testify, sharing and arguing their way of life was being threatened. After many months was the signing of the JBNQA. We were given the right, yes, to set up our own institutions with government funding. 

That’s how the CHB was formed 45 years ago. At that time, it was unheard of for Indians to control their own institutions like healthcare, education, local and regional government, and youth protection. There were no models, so our institutions were modelled on the white man’s. 

In 1979, one year after the CHB was established, the YP law was adopted. Most people working in YP now were not even born then. At that time, we were short-handed in the expertise required to run these types of institutions. We did not think of our knowledge of what we had as Cree and how we could integrate that into our new institutions. Our medicines, our ways of helping one another, our Cree way of being. We did not think of that. It all happened very fast. 

As we were confronted with the challenges in the 1970s, although they’re very different and more complex today, the challenges of living a sedentary way of life, all the complex problems surfaced, and we had no idea what to do. We are still searching. We figured since these were white man’s problems, it was best to deal with them with their programs. We tried to adapt ourselves since 1979. Now we have the chance to do something about it. We will do what we should have done 45 years ago to change that. 

If we don’t do it now, it may be that we will have lost a lot of what we have in terms of our traditions, language and values. There’s an erosion that’s already happening. Time is working against us. Having a dialogue about what’s working and what’s not working, we can look at what’s helped us in the past. Those values and traditions for healing and care for one another. This is what this commission is set out to do. Our purpose is to get people to talk and share to guide us in looking for solutions in how we can change things. 

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.