Inuvialuit youth in child and family services will now be supported to remain in their home communities after a new law was signed in Inuvik, N.W.T., on Wednesday.
The new legislation was implemented by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC), the government that represents the collective interests of the Inuvialuit — the western Arctic Inuit — in the N.W.T.
This was the first of its kind created by an Indigenous government in the N.W.T., and the first in an Inuit region.
Now, Inuvialuit youth known as beneficiaries, which are members or descendants of a member represented by the IRC, entering child and family services anywhere in the country will be supported so they can remain in their home community, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
This means youth who are currently in child and family services anywhere in Canada will have the opportunity to return to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) — which includes Inuvik, Aklavik, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok.
Jackie Jacobson, MLA for Nunakput, said many Inuvialuit youth are in the foster system in Alberta, and this law can help bring them home.
Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, IRC chair, said residential schools have created intergenerational traumas that continue to affect Inuvialuit family relationships.
"Because of residential schools, the parents lost that communication with their children because some of them were taken away for years and when they went back home, they couldn't even speak the same language," he said. "Then it just became a vicious cycle."
That disconnect has been worsened with the current child and family services system that keeps youth away from their culture and history, Smith said.
Smith said the new legislation will eventually allow the IRC to build its own child and family services that offers financial, cultural and educational support for Inuvialuit families. But he was clear in saying it will not just replace the existing one run by the territorial government.
"It's going to be reflective of our culture and our approach, not just a sterile colonialist approach that's been implemented for the last 100 years," he says.
Smith says in order for the IRC to create its own child and family services system, it will need additional funding from the federal government.
'We're calling our own shots'
Jacobson, who is Inuvialuit, has fostered numerous children with his wife, Jenny.
He says they make it a priority to teach all their children about their culture.
"I'm Inuvialuit — hunting, fishing, dog teams ... and we instill in them family," he said.
Jacobson said he is very happy with the new legislation as it will ensure more youth continue to be immersed in their culture.
"We're calling our own shots with what's happening with our Inuvialuit youth," he said, "not having our kids shipped out of our communities."
Jacobson said he hopes the new law will ensure children in the foster system have a relationship with their biological family.
"We raised a lot of children. Every one of those kids, their parents have always been a part of their life," he said.
The legislation became a reality as a result of federal legislation, Bill C-92, which passed in January 2020.
That legislation grants First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and groups the authority to transition toward taking "partial or full jurisdiction over child and family services at a pace that they choose."
N.W.T. MP Michael McLeod offered his congratulations to the IRC.
"This was the goal of Bill C-92. Ensuring the safety of Indigenous children is a critical component of reconciliation," he said.
According to an annual report of the Director of Child and Family Services (CFS) tabled in the N.W.T.'s Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, 98 per cent of children and youth who received child and youth services from the territorial government are Indigenous, while only 57 per cent of children and youth in the N.W.T. are Indigenous.
Premier looks forward to working with IRC
Smith said notice of the IRC's new legislation has been served to the federal government, as well as the Yukon government, Alberta government and the government of the Northwest Territories.
N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane congratulated the IRC in a press release.
"This law is a big step forward in ensuring decisions are made in the best interests of Inuvialuit children, youth and families. We are committed to continuing to work with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation moving forward," she wrote.
An IRC press release said the organization currently has the Inuvialuit Social Development Program, which offers family support as well cultural programming.
But the new legislation will allow the IRC to create an entirely new department that will lead the work and take on responsibility for child well-being and the implementation of the law.
The law is called Inuvialuit Qitunrariit Inuuniarnikkun Maligaksat, which translates to the Inuvialuit Family Way of Living Law.
Smith said the IRC decided to pass the law after visiting all the communities in the ISR and speaking with individuals about what was needed to ensure healthy families with Inuvialuit values.
All existing child and youth protection laws will remain in force as the new legislation is implemented. But the new law immediately requires all levels of government to meet certain standards for Inuvialuit children, youth and their families, who are in child and family services, an IRC press release said.
Smith said he's proud to lead the first Indigenous organization in the N.W.T. to establish the legislation, and he doesn't expect it to be the last.