The bilateral Children’s Act review has collapsed.
After two years of working with the Yukon government to revamp the law, officials from the Council of Yukon First Nations have quit.
Frustrated by long delays, the territory’s lack of commitment and their recent exclusion from parts of the process, grand chief Andy Carvill announced the withdrawal Friday.
“We just want to make it clear that, at this point in time, the chief’s committee is going to be directing the officials to withdraw from the Children’s Act revision project effective immediately,” Carvill told a media conference on Friday.
The process broke down completely in a recent meeting between council officials and government workers.
The agreement was that self-governing First Nations and the territory would develop new legislation together.
However, territorial officials came with a draft policy in hand, said Carvill.
“When our team met, the government officials came with a policy that was already being worked on,” he said.
“When they did come to the table, (after months of delay), the policy was there in draft for response.”
That was not part of deal.
“It was our anticipation that we’d be 50-50 partners in addressing the Children’s Act revisions,” said Darren Taylor, Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief and member of the Children’s Act review committee.
“That 50-50 partnership is somewhat slowly eroding.”
With the fate of many children implicated in the revision, the council and individual First Nations chiefs are at an impasse.
“Our hands are somewhat tied at this point in time,” said Taylor.
“Things are unfolding quite differently than we anticipated.”
That version of events is “entirely incorrect,” said Premier Dennis Fentie.
“We worked together collectively to go out and dig into this matter in depth and in detail,” said Fentie on Monday.
“A tremendous amount has been accomplished to date to help us to proceed, and to inform the amendments themselves.”
Government workers showed up at the meeting with a document that synthesized work the groups had done together, Fentie added.
“It was work done that consolidated 18 months of consultation and input from across the territory.
The document was not a draft of the new policy, he said.
“It was information that allowed us to sit, at the officials level, and discuss the policy based on the work done to date.”
It is up to the council and individual First Nations to decide whether they continue to be involved in the review, said Fentie.
That question will be discussed at the council’s next leadership meeting in May.
Chiefs will vote on whether the council should remain involved or bow out of the revision permanently.
“When we look at the majority of children in care, they are our children,” said Carvill.
“We have to be involved in the policy development right up to the stages of legislation development.”
While chiefs try to come to consensus, it may not be possible in this case, added Taylor.
“I think there’s a number of chiefs that are really divided on this.”
Another option for self-governing First Nations is to exit the territorial child welfare system altogether.
“We have to keep this thought in the back of our minds, that we are self-governing First Nations,” said Taylor.
“We do have the authority to take these types of programs down as governments.”
Any number of chiefs could choose to leave the territorial system and create their own policies for children in care.
This sudden fissure in the council-government relationship stands in stark contrast to the message coming from both groups less than two weeks ago.
On March 16 a joint press release stated that the council and the government were on the verge of pulling together a group to finalize changes to the act.
“The two parties have agreed to establish a working group to finalize the policy discussions with representatives from both the Yukon government and Council for Yukon First Nations,” the release stated.
After that meeting, officials felt optimistic that the review was moving forward, said Carvill.
“Those glowing words were how we felt at that time.”
The feeling did not hold for much more than a week, though.
“As we know things change on a day-to-day basis, especially in politics,” Carvill added.
“What had happened between the meeting with the premier and the meeting with our officials the other day — we’re somewhat perplexed ourselves as to how things have changed.”
This is another example of the Yukon Party’s failure to work together with other groups, said Kluane MLA Gary McRobb.
“The Yukon Party held up the Children’s Act review as a case example of how Yukon government and Yukon First Nations should work together,” he said in a recent interview.
“Now it’s clearly a disaster.”
There have been warning signs since last fall, according to McRobb, when draft legislation was never produced.
“The chief’s committee is saying it wasn’t consulted and the Yukon Party government was working behind the scenes not in collaboration with it.”
Working together is crucial for Yukon First Nations, who are deeply invested in the issues at the heart of the Children’s Act review, said both Carvill and Taylor.
“The main part that is of interest to First Nations organizations and governments is” the apprehension of children, said Taylor.
“We continually have our children apprehended in the existing system, they’re taken out of the community and put into different homes.
“Really, we don’t have a say where these children end up.”
With 80 per cent of children in care being First Nations, the issue is extremely important to Carvill.
“As we continue on with this work, our children are still being apprehended,” he said.
However, the government has promised to proceed with amendments to the act.
“The government is going to do what we set out to do,” said Fentie.
“The objective is, obviously, to improve significantly the legal mechanism — the act itself — so that we can improve how we deal with children in care.”