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More child services deals could follow

The Yukon government wants to strike child services agreements with all Yukon First Nations, using its recent partnership with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation as a model.

The Yukon government wants to strike child services agreements with all Yukon First Nations, using its recent partnership with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation as a model.

The hope is that no other chief will resort to banning government workers from the First Nations’ land, as Mike Smith, former chief of the Kwanlin Dun, threatened to do two years ago.

Frustrations over how children were being taken from their parents and adopted outside the community boiled over in October of that year. Smith announced the territory’s social workers would not be allowed on Kwanlin Dun’s land, including the subdivisions in McIntyre and on Crow Street near Mountainview.

The ban didn’t last very long. By the next day, Stuart Whitley, assistant deputy minister of Health and Social Services called Smith, asking to sit down and talk.

Whitley asked Mark Wedge, former chief from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, to sit as a mediator, said Whitley.

“I didn’t know Chief Smith very well,” he said. “But one could tell, by the tone of his pronouncement, that he was upset. I knew, kind of, what was at the root of all of this and it wasn’t any specific event. But it had been brewing, I think it’s fair to say, for a very, very long time.”

There were attempts made by the First Nation to speak with the territory before this, to no avail. But Smith’s announcement got things started, said Jeanie Dendys, justice director for Kwanlin Dun.

“It certainly caught the attention of everyone involved, on both sides. There was a moment of shock. It quickly prompted our elected officials into action … to start looking at what it is that we need to do, on both sides of the government, in order to address the concerns that were raised at the time. Really, the concerns were largely around not knowing.”

Whitley realized that painful memories of residential school complicated the affair. First Nations’ citizens saw the territory taking away its children to be raised by strangers – much like what happened during a century of government-sanctioned and church-run schools, which exposed students to abuse and aimed to assimilate them.

“When we sat down to talk about it, that’s what came up,” Whitley said of his and Smith’s meeting. “He was not taking the position that people that abuse their children and happen to be First Nations should not have their children taken away, he wasn’t saying that at all.

“Basically what he was saying, if I can summarize his concerns, was that ‘We have some ideas about how to deal with these families, we have some ideas about how to protect these children, we have some ideas on plans that can be made for the welfare of these kids that don’t necessarily involve taking them off our traditional territory and placing them with strangers to look after. We want you to listen to us.’

“Well how can you argue with that? It’s completely reasonable. It’s just unfortunate that we didn’t start this conversation a long time ago. I guess there’s many reasons for that but, at this point it’s water far under the bridge. It’s been a learning experience.”

The new agreement between the First Nation and Health and Social Services promises a couple of things. The territory is obliged to notify Kwanlin Dun when they deal with any of the First Nations’ citizens, regardless of where they live. And the First Nation will work with the territory to find the best solutions to help keep children connected to their community, culture and identity.

The agreement also establishes a committee equally made up of Kwanlin Dun and territorial staff to help implement it. Under law, child and family services is still the territory’s responsibility.

The agreement wasn’t signed until this month, but the joint work it details began right after Smith and Whitley spoke. Over the past two years, the two governments have been building the trust and mutual respect that has been long overdue, said Dendys.

But even with the agreement signed, things aren’t done yet.

There is still much work to do for the First Nation and territory, said Dendys. Kwanlin Dun social workers are in training with the territory, and the First Nations’ community is being asked to help.

“We really see a huge role for our families, for our elders, our community members to be fully involved and engaged in taking responsibility within their own families,” said Dendys.

Eventually, Kwanlin Dun hopes to write its own legislation and completely take over the responsibilities, as their self-government agreement allows.

Like the territory, Kwanlin Dun also supports the signing of similar agreements with other First Nations. It has already shared the agreement with the Council of Yukon First Nations.

“We need to be the ones making the decisions about the most precious resource that we have as First Nations people, and that is our children – that’s the future of our nations and we know that,” said Dendys.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at