MASKWACIS — An Alberta First Nation signed a two-year agreement with Ottawa Wednesday that gives it the autonomy to administer its own child welfare.
Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis, Alta., south of Edmonton, is the first in the province to sign such an agreement.
"This is an important day for Louis Bull Tribe," Chief Desmond Bull said during the signing. "Our children are sacred. This law seeks to bring them home."
The First Nation said it's a bilateral agreement with the federal government and does not involve the province.
Last year, Louis Bull's child welfare organization, Asikiw Mostos O’Pikinawasiwin Society, said Alberta wasn't co-operating and didn't want to sign the agreement. Child welfare services for most Indigenous children are provided by the province or territory where they reside.
Chinenye Anokwuru, a spokesperson for Alberta's Children's Services, said in a statement that the department has worked with the Louis Bull Tribe to support the transition to their law.
"To ensure their safety, the ministry provided resources and supports to Louis Bull Tribe including a transitional grant to help with transitioning the files to the Louis Bull Tribe as well as access to information systems to help with the transition process," she said.
"We also continued to fund the cost of placement for some children and youth, as needed, and made sure they had staff for six months, with after-hour services, office space and equipment at no cost to the Louis Bull Tribe."
Anokwuru said the department is committed to working with First Nations and the federal government when requests to enter into coordination agreements are received from First Nations in Alberta, but wouldn't say why the province wasn't part of the agreement with Louis Bull Tribe.
Ottawa passed An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families in 2020 with a focus on prevention so families can receive support to remain together.
It allows First Nations to bypass co-ordination agreements with provincial governments if no consensus is met one year after a request is made to administer to their own child welfare services.
"Wherever there is a conflict of law — federal, provincial, municipal, or another First Nation — this Asikiw Mostos O’Pikinawasiwin Law is paramount," said a news release from Indigenous Services Canada.
"Reducing the number of Indigenous children in care remains a priority for AMO Society with the support from the Government of Canada."
The Asikiw Mostos O’Pikinawasiwin Society was founded shortly after the federal bill was passed. The society works toward the First Nation having full authority over its child and family services.
Catherine Lappe, assistant deputy minister at Indigenous Services Canada, signed the agreement with Bull on behalf of Minister Patty Hadju during a ceremony.
"Louis Bull Tribe is leading the way to a better future for their families and children," said Hadju in a statement. "Canada's colonial reality has harmed too many people over generations, but today Canada and Louis Bull Tribe have a new path forward together."
Bull said the law will ensure that children will grow up immersed in their own culture.
"Although this is only a two-year agreement, it gives us the base and the foundation for us to look forward to developing something stronger, something more permanent, something that will allow that bilateral agreement to continue."
Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan was the first to sign such an agreement in 2021. Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Ontario and Peguis First Nation in Manitoba have also signed agreements with Ottawa and their provincial governments.
Dozens of other First Nations across the country are waiting for agreements.
The federal government will provide Louis Bull Tribe nearly $125 million over the next two years as it implements the Asikiw Mostos O’Pikinawasiwin law.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.
By Angela Amato in Edmonton.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous story had the incorrect spelling of Catherine Lappe's name in the photo caption.