From left: Marvin Leon, Lily Solomon and Paulette Phillips at the Sts’ailes ceremony celebrating the assertion of jurisdiction over child and family services at the Charlie Longhouse in “Harrison Mills” on February 16. All photos courtesy Sts’ailes

For Sts’ailes Grand Chief Willie Charlie, his community’s struggle to regain control over their own child welfare decisions has been long and sometimes tiring.

“I lost a lot of sleep over this fight,” said Charlie, who, as chief negotiator, has been working with colonial governments to assert Sts’ailes child welfare laws.

The night before a ceremony celebrating the assertion of jurisdiction over child and family services, Charlie said emails were pinging back and forth until 11 p.m. between Sts’ailes, “British Columbia” and “Canada.”

The Sts’ailes ceremony, held at the start of the Family Day long weekend on February 16, was meant to celebrate the signing of a coordination agreement between the three governments — establishing the fiscal arrangements ensuring the Sts’ailes can assert jurisdiction with the funding and resources it needs. 

However, one month before the agreement was scheduled to be signed, “Canada” withdrew its commitment to meet the deadline, providing no timeline or explanation. 

Despite the withdrawal, Sts’ailes signed the agreement with support from the province, and proceeded with the ceremony at the Charlie Longhouse on their territories in the “Fraser Valley.” 

“The ceremony sent a really powerful clear statement from our leadership, supported by our people, that we’re going to move forward,” said Charlie. 

A Sts’ailes ceremony celebrating the assertion of jurisdiction over child and family services took place at the Charlie Longhouse in “Harrison Mills” on February 16.

Sts’ailes is one of a number of First Nations, including Tŝilhqot’in and Cowichan Tribes, that is negotiating terms with colonial governments to assert their child welfare laws in accordance with Bill C-92. 

Sts’ailes has been in negotiation with “Canada” and “British Columbia” since October 2020. In 2021, the parties signed a commitment letter affirming the parties’ dedication to reaching a final coordination agreement. 

The process should have taken one year, said Charlie, “but it felt like pulling teeth.” 

Eager to address impacts of colonial policies and systems, Sts’ailes enacted the Snowoyelh te Emi:melh te Sts’ailes (Sts’ailes Child and Family Services Law) on February 22, 2022, and brought the law into full force within the Sts’ailes community on April 1, 2023. 

When the province and “Canada” failed to sign by April 1, Sts’ailes says it continued to negotiate.

“We told them we’ll do it incrementally,” says Charlie. “We told them once we have a signed agreement in January 2024, we’ll bring our law into full force [across the province] on April 1, 2024.”

Charlie said “Canada” finally seemed willing to sign. “They kept commiting. ‘Yes’ they said, ‘we’re on track to sign.’” 

But in December 2023, “Canada” withdrew, providing no reason or timeline for when it would be ready to finalize. 

“I was baffled and confused,” said Charlie. “But here we are.”  

Canada’s withdrawal stands in sharp contrast to comments made by federal Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu following the Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold Bill C-92. Earlier in February, Hajdu told reporters: “This is a clarion call for all provinces and territories to be partners in this reconciliation. It is now the law, actually, that that work has to continue.” IndigiNews reached out to Minister Hajdu for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

When “Canada” withdrew its commitment, Sts’ailes’ chief and council agreed to “bridge the gap” until the agreement is signed. 

“By no means are we a rich band, but our chief and council have said that our most precious resources are our children,” said Charlie. “They are our future.” 

Charlie says that a big part of the agreement is to have Sts’ailes cultural programming recognized, but also to be funded adequately. 

“This agreement will support the replacement of the current system, which we know isn’t working, with a new model that is rooted in Sts’ailes law and ensures that our children and families receive culturally appropriate services,” said the executive director of the Snowoyelh Department, Anna Charlie, in a written statement. 

The Sts’ailes child welfare philosophy is called Te Lalem, which translates to “the house.” 

“We take the whole family and we put them in the house, keeping them together … We need to include grandparents, aunties, uncles, from all sides if they know their child’s family tree,” said Charlie.

“By front-ending some of that work with the extended family, I think you come up with the best care plan to keep your family united, together. That’s going to have a ripple effect put onto the others that have been tinged by multi-generational trauma.” 

Chief Ralph Leon and Cora Yeltarezi at the Sts’ailes ceremony at the Charlie Longhouse.

Charlie said Sts’ailes has also spent time considering the resources needed to implement the law. 

“We need things like an office, counsellors and psychologists.” 

He’s concerned that Snowoyelh staff earn “nowhere close” to what social workers and ministry workers are currently paid. “We need to level up,” he said.

Although Bill C-92 provides Indigenous communities with a pathway to apply their inherent jurisdiction over the care of their own children and families, there is no legally binding funding obligation from the federal government to assist with the transition of power, making First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments vulnerable to whatever funding agreement “Canada” chooses to sign with them. 

Critics say that the federal government’s decision to enact Bill C-92 did so to “offload responsibility” for child welfare. In a recent Media Indigena podcast episode, host Rick Harp asked Cindy Blackstock whether she was concerned that by enacting Bill C-92, “Canada” is “passing the buck and passing the blame onto those who’ve suffered” under colonial regimes for past decades. Blackstock agreed it was a concern. 

“It’s like the feds built this shell of a building. It’s not hooked up to the grid. And even if it was, they’re not going to pay for the power or the water, that’s for the First Nation to figure out,” said Harp. 

Bruce McIvor of First Peoples Law shares the concern. 

“[C-92] is grounded in the longstanding, colonial legal principle that the federal government has the authority to pass laws that go to the very core of Indigenous peoples’ lives, culture and identity,” wrote the lawyer in a recent blog post. “The same principle used to enforce Canada’s past and current anti-Indigenous genocidal laws and policies.”

Despite his frustration, Charlie isn’t concerned about “Canada” not following through on its funding commitment. 

“Canada and British Columbia both need to make commitments towards reconciliation. They’ve made commitments towards UNDRIP, and they’ve made commitments towards coordination agreements.” 

During the ceremony, Charlie said that a representative from the province expressed interest in a bilateral agreement, if “Canada” withdraws completely. 

“I think that’s a great gesture, but hopefully Canada gets it together and we can have a signed agreement in the very near future.” In an email to IndigiNews, the Ministry of Child and Family Development confirmed that it “remains committed to achieving a signed coordination agreement.”

(Left to right) Paulette Phillips, Wanda Lewis, Tyra Point and Jeremy Charlie stand behind the coordination agreements, unsigned by “Canada,” with children Lily Solomon and Karson Charlie on either side.

As children danced, attendees — including representatives from “Canada” and “British Columbia” — were covered with blankets. 

“We wanted to recognize everybody that was at the table with us. To make a statement that we are in agreement, but also that their work is not yet done,” said Charlie. 

“We’re encouraging them to do the right thing.”

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