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Cree task force to remake Youth Protection system launched in Mistissini

BY Will Nicholls Sep 26, 2023

The Cree Youth Protection Commission started its work in Mistissini September 7 with the goal of overhauling the Youth Protection system to make it more responsive to Cree needs.

Led by former Cree Health and Social Services chairperson Bella Petawabano and psychologist Lorraine Spencer, founder of Siikuun healing retreat, the commission is consulting communities, Cree entities and provincial stakeholders.

One problem they are examining is that, out of the 1,187 reports that Youth Protection handled last year, seven out of 10 were not retained for various reasons. All of this overextended the current Youth Protection Service staff and created difficulties solving real problems.

“This is an important step in our process of evaluating the current laws and to adopt these laws to our own Cree culture and Cree values,” Mistissini Chief Michael Petawabano told the commission. 

Petawabano pointed to an expanding population, the residential school legacy, the pandemic and the fire evacuations as stress points. He felt the across-the-board approach of the commission’s task force would help to keep things balanced and was shown to be effective in the past for the Cree Nation.

“We could all agree that we are long overdue to evaluate and integrate our culture and values in the child protection system, with the goal to improve the well-being of our Cree youth,” he said.

Current CBHSS chair Bertie Wapachee said, “Our future, as a nation, is determined by how we protect, provide, care for and nurture our children. Unfortunately, the current situation in Eeyou Istchee shows something is not working. “

Wapachee said Youth Protection has always been a priority for the CBHSS and “We need to reinforce culturally safe practices/ approaches and identify Cree principles in designing the new Cree program.” 

When asked how this would be done, he said that the community consultations will have the “voices and perspectives” that will guide the board in this process. The next few months will see commissioners visiting each community and he hopes as many Cree as possible will participate in the consultations. 

After the consultations are finished recommendations will be made to the board of directors of the CBHSS on proposed changes. Wapachee added that he was happy that Catherine Lemay, the National Director of Youth Protection in Quebec, is supporting the process.

Deputy Grand Chief Norman Wapachee said that the provincial and federal governments’ institutions of assimilation included more than residential schools. They took the Cree from the land and created a huge detrimental impact on them, and the policies of inclusion only added to that. As an example, he said that Ouje-Bougoumou had been relocated six times in a 50-year period to make room for development that they never wanted or were included in. 

“We became known as squatters on provincial and federal lands and that had an impact on us,” Wapachee observed.

Then it was time for the speaker everyone was waiting for – Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. She has been instrumental in gaining recognition of Indigenous children on an equal basis with any other child in Canada.

Blackstock asked important questions about Cree ancestors. What did they want to have us know and do? Was it collecting and knowing certain answers but for than respect? Blackstock said she felt it was “The Great Forgetting… I hear echoes from the past.” 

“They didn’t want to be defined by the pain,” she observed. “They preserved the teachings so that one day I would bring them forward… to address our obligations and duty to do more for our children.” 

Blackstock also asked simply, what is the problem? Is it youth justice? Or child welfare? 

In the end, Blackstock said hearing Cree used so much at an event like this was uplifting as she knows most Indigenous languages are in danger of being lost.

Finally, Lemay said the Quebec government was on board with the Cree Youth Commission. She said the aspirations of the Cree was a “noble objective” in protecting Cree children. She also acknowledged that dealing with Indigenous children cannot be the same as for the rest of Quebec.

“The well-being of Indigenous children is inseparable from the culture, namely the relationship to the territory, the different notion of time, language, family models, history and spirituality, said Lemay. 

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.