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Native leaders reject new child-welfare agency

Tyrone McNeil of the Sto;lo Tribal Council heads out to checks the sockeye salmon nets that will later be cut into strips and hung on a dry rack to cure for up to ten days on the banks of the Fraser river near Hope, BC, JUly 29, 2009.

Lyle Stafford for The Globe and Mail/lyle stafford The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government has delegated authority for aboriginal child protection in the Fraser Valley to an agency that does not have the support of prominent native leaders in the area.

The Fraser Valley Aboriginal Child and Family Services Agency is to replace Xyolhemeylh Child and Family Services, which the government took over in 2007 after a number of controversies including the death of a toddler.

The agreement delegating authority to the Fraser Valley agency was officially signed on Friday. However, several aboriginal leaders did not show up.

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"We do not wish to be a part of your organization and do not wish our children to be serviced by your agency," the Seabird Island chief and band council say in internal correspondence released to The Globe and Mail. The band passed a resolution that stated it would prefer to receive the continued services of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The new child protection agency was intended to serve the Sto:lo people of the Fraser Valley. However the Sto:lo remain divided.

A group called the Sto:lo Nation represents 10 bands with about 2,000 members; eight bands with about 3,000 people are represented by the Sto:lo Tribal Council. Six bands with more than 1,000 people remain independent. The new agency has the backing of most bands in the Sto:lo Nation but little support among the Sto:lo Tribal Council bands.

The government takeover of Xyolhemeylh in 2007 was intended to allow time for Sto:lo bands to unite behind a new organization, the government said at the time. But more than three years later, the Sto:lo people remain just as bitterly divided over the handling of child protection issues.

Sto:lo Tribal Council Grand Chief Clarence Pennier said in an interview Wednesday that he had firsthand experience this fall with the obstacles facing aboriginal families trying to stay together.

His brother's grandchildren had been taken and placed with a foster family in a different town. He tried to advocate on behalf of his family, proposing to authorities that they put the children in the home of a relative or at least keep the children in the same town where they could have contact with family members. His suggestions were ignored.

His experience was not unusual, he said. Several other Sto:lo families have told him of similar problems. That was one of the main reasons why he stayed away from the official ceremony last Friday. "To me, nothing has changed," he said. "Why should we support it if nothing has changed?"

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Tribal chief Tyrone McNeil of the Sto:lo Tribal Council said he is looking for more accountability in the new agency. Although the agency operates under authority delegated by the government allowing it to apprehend children, it still operates under the government's rules, he said.

"It's fine if an aboriginal person is there, but if all they are doing is following the ministry guidelines, it does not really matter if they are aboriginal or not," he said.

Children and Family Development Minister Mary Polak will not be available for an interview until January. Chris Ash, manager of the ministry's public affairs bureau, said the ministry's focus remains to serve as many aboriginal children as possible through the new agency.

"Ideally we would want all bands to be part of this process, but that's not the reality at this point," Ms. Ash said.

Sto:lo Nation chief Joe Hall will also be unavailable for an interview until early January.

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