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WINNIPEG (WH) - The first national conference of the Canadian Indian Lawyers Association was convened here April 15-17. The primary aim was to discuss Indian child welfare and to arrive at some procedures to correct the problems that have arisen in that area.
A report of the Canadian Council of Social Development outlining some startling statistics regarding Indian children was instrumental in the decision to hold the conference.
THE REPORT indicates that 40 per cent of the total population of Canadian Indians (status and non-status) is under the age of 15 (that is, 420,000 Indians). Of these, 3.8 per cent are under the care of child welfare agencies while only 1.35 per cent of white children are in childcare situations.
The high incidence of native children in care is related to the other social problems faced by Indians - unemployment, poverty, poor housing, alcoholism, under-education. These in turn are compounded by the confusion of laws and jurisdictions governing Indian welfare.
In order for native people to assume control over the welfare of their children there must be substantial changes in the present system. The British North America Act gives control of native people per se to the federal government; but provincial governments have jurisdiction over child care.
HOWEVER, since status Indian children on reserves are ostensibly under federal jurisdiction, provincial authorities have in the past stayed off reserves except in life and death situations. This has meant child welfare has largely been ignored until a crisis point is reached. It is only recently that the provinces have begun to take steps to help.
"If we are to deal with the rights of the Indian child, we must look at both half-breeds and status Indians, because white society discriminates against both," said Clem Chartier, a Cree lawyer from Regina.
Mr. Chartier expressed a firm opinion as to how such rights should be assumed. He wants Indians to strive for self-determination and, as part of this, he has called for unity among all native peoples.
"THERE IS a need to overcome our own separateness," he said. "We must be more unified - status and half-breed. If there is to be a change in the Canadian constitution, the indigenous people must form a united front. The rights and welfare of our children should be the issue we unite around."
"If we are to deal with the rights of the Indian child, we must look at both half-breeds and status Indians, because white society discriminates against both."
Doug Cuthand of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, a Cree, said, "the province of Saskatchewan is involved in 250 cases so-called life and death. What has happened is that the 'feds' haven't bothered and the province has had to pick it up."
Mr. Cuthand, a strong proponent of self-determination for Indians, added, "we have lost more Indian people through child welfare than through marriage. Children are adopted and taken off band lists. So then Indian people have non-Indian last names: German, Ukrainian, etc. And Indian Affairs strikes them off the lists. We don't know who they are. How can we find them?
"ON THE reserves, the chief and council have authority and jurisdiction to do something. Indian Affairs says different but the authority of our chiefs and councils has got to extend beyond the boundaries of the reserve.
"A valuable resource we have is our elders. We could develop an elders' tribunal to mediate child welfare, juvenile delinquency, wardships.
"Indian leaders must sit with government leaders to develop a whole range of policies for Indian people. Right now we've become big business living on welfare. We support a lot of social workers."
MR. CUTHAND pointed out that although Indian Affairs spends millions of dollars a year, most of this goes to community affairs and administration. The department underspent by $10 million in the area of programs for and direct help to Indian people in 1978.
While all speakers and panellists spoke negatively of the present Indian child welfare programs, they had positive ideas for improving the Indian child's lot.
The concern of the lawyers as well as of the capacity audience of native people, child-care workers, tribal members and Indian Affairs representatives was evident throughout the conference. It was clear the recommendations which will be drawn up and formally submitted to government have the support of the Indian people.