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Largest First Nation in B.C. votes to take over child and family services for its members

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British Columbia's largest First Nation has voted to take over authority of child and family services for its members.

Results of a vote held by the Cowichan Tribes show 83 per cent of the 416 citizens who cast ballots were in favour of the new law that would prioritize supports to keep children with their families or place them with relatives or in other Indigenous homes.

Negotiator Robert Morales, who helped develop the new law, said the Government of Canada decided what was best for Indigenous children for more than 150 years and chose to remove them from their families and culture when placing them in the child welfare system.

"(The new law) represents a significant step in the self-determination of the Cowichan people," he said.

"The ability to make determinations as to what's in the best interests of your children is a very fundamental right, and one that the community should have a significant say in and not have outside governments making those determinations," he said in a phone interview.

Federal legislation that took effect in 2020 allows Indigenous communities to create and manage their own child welfare systems.

The Cowichan Tribes, which has about 5,300 members and is based on Vancouver Island, have been negotiating for years with the federal and provincial governments on what the transition will look like.

Morales said those negotiations are expected to wrap up by January and the Cowichan Tribes are hoping to take over by April 2024.

For now, he said the new law will apply to members living anywhere on Vancouver Island and on the Gulf Islands but could eventually be applied to all members of the First Nation in the child welfare system anywhere in Canada.

"Under the federal legislation, they have not set any geographic boundaries. So Indigenous laws apply as far as the Indigenous nations says they want their laws to apply," Morales said.

"But the federal government has also said that their position is that each nation would need to negotiate a co-ordination agreement with the province."

He said there are about 100 children who are members of Cowichan Tribes currently covered under B.C. provincial laws, adding the goal once the First Nation takes over will be family reunification whenever possible.

Cowichan Tribes Chief Lydia Hwitsum said in a statement ahead of the vote that ratifying the law means keeping families together in a way that reflects the community's teachings and ways of being.

"We are at a defining moment in our history, with the opportunity at our fingertips to chart a happy, healthy, and culturally-rich future for our smun’eem, our children,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2023

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