- Vibrations across a Continent:The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act and the Politicization of First Nations Leaders in Saskatchewan
On September 14, 1983, the Honorable Gordon Dirks, minister of social services in Saskatchewan, addressed the Peyakowak (Cree, "They Are Alone") Committee in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, stating: "I am today establishing a Ministerial Advisory Council consisting of experienced community individuals and experts in the area of child and family services. I shall be directing this council to hold public meetings and receive public opinion, and to review legislative and policy themes."1 The Ministerial Advisory Council, headed by Peter Matthews, president of the Saskatoon Society for the Protection of Children, had representatives from communities in Saskatchewan, social workers, and aboriginal peoples. The Conservative provincial government, headed by Premier Grant Devine, had begun the process of reviewing the dated provincial legislation, the Family Services Act (1973) directing the Department of Social Services. The Advisory Council would make recommendations for the new legislation to better reflect the needs of the Saskatchewan's diverse population. Saskatchewan, a primarily rural province in the Prairie region of Canada, had a substantial population of people of First Nations and Métis ancestry and likewise had the highest percentage of Native children in the care of Social Services of all Canadian provinces.2 Dirks's choice to make his official announcement to the Peyakowak Committee signaled its essential role in advocating a new direction in child and family services. In addition, First Nations and Métis people sought control of child welfare to stem the growing tide of apprehensions of their children and put a stop to children being adopted into the homes of nonaboriginal families.
The formation of the Advisory Council was an unsatisfactory response [End Page 218] to Peyakowak's demand for a formal public inquiry into the death of an aboriginal toddler in a Saskatchewan foster home. In addition to unsafe foster home conditions, another area of concern for the Advisory Council was the high percentage of Native children who had been removed from their homes, placed in foster homes, and then put up for adoption. In 1981, of the 1,567 children living in foster homes in Saskatchewan, 1,201 were Native, or 76.8 percent.3 This crisis had many contributing factors, such as a lack of resources for protecting children in their homes and prevention of removal through family assistance, both to be examined by the Advisory Council. Saskatchewan was not alone in publicly reconsidering its approach to providing child and family services to its aboriginal population. Like the Kimelman Inquiry taking place next door in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario also revised their Child and Family Services legislation in the early 1980s, as Canadian provinces sought a legislative solution to cultural and legal changes that had taken place over the past decades.4
The 1983 Review of the Family Services Act (1973) and the Advisory Council meetings in Saskatchewan should be viewed against the backdrop of political changes taking place in North American society. Beginning with decolonization movements in both Canada and the United States, control over the provision of child and family services to indigenous children occupied a central position in discussions of self-determination. Control over child welfare provides a common language to what are essentially competing ideas of kinship and child rearing in indigenous and nonindigenous societies. To explore how activists framed aboriginal child welfare in the early part of the 1980s in Saskatchewan, I will draw together four historically significant events that privileged certain explanations for aboriginal overrepresentation while silencing others. First, I address the 1978 passing of the US Indian Child Welfare Act, which gave tribal courts jurisdiction over the placement of children. This legislation provided Canadian legal scholars and First Nations leadership with a framework for articulating a position on child welfare jurisdiction. Second, I examine the lobbying of the national and Saskatchewan Native women's movement, which sought an end to the gender discrimination in the Indian Act leading to the involuntary loss of Indian status and community membership. Third, there is the movement for self-government among indigenous peoples that resulted in the inclusion of protected rights in the repatriated Constitution...