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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Tribe Sues Canada for Control of Its Children

VANCOUVER, B.C. (CN) - In what could be a coup for aboriginal self-government in Canada, the Splatsin First Nation has taken British Columbia to court, claiming the province's child welfare legislation is unconstitutional and does not apply to the tribe.

The Splatsin aka Splatsin te Sepwepemc and its Chief Wayne Christian aka Kukpi7 Wunuxtsin claim in B.C. Supreme Court that tribal laws and legal orders have long tasked its local communities with "the responsibility to make decisions in respect of the protection and care of children."

The Sepwepemc are known in English as the Shuswap.

"Each local community is comprised of a network of extended families which interact with each other as families, and under the authority of their leaders known as Kukpi7 or Chief, or head man," the claim states. "Splatsin is a local community which is responsible for the care and protection of Splatsin children in accordance with Secwepemc laws."

Those laws were "disrupted" by oppressive colonization and the Canadian government's "assimilationist policies" which took thousands of aboriginal children away from their families sent them to boarding schools and foster homes that were rife with abuse.

Known as the "Sixties Scoop," children swept up by the provincial government's Ministry of Children and Family Development began returning home to the Splatsin in the mid to late 1970s, according to the lawsuit.

"When they returned, they did not know their families or understand what it meant to be Splatsin and Secwepemc," the claim states. "This was a time of turmoil for Splatsin. Many of the former children-in-care of the Ministry had trouble re-integrating into families who had been traumatized by their removal years ago, and no longer knew them.

"Since 1990, the provincial government has committed to working with the Splatsin in child welfare matters, but limits the tribe's jurisdiction to lands reserved under Canada's Indian Act. It still imposes the Child, Family and Community Service Act, under which "Secwepemc laws and legal orders are not respected," the claim states.

"The result of the CFCSA being applied to Splatsin children is that many of these children are cut off from their culture, their language, their way of life. The loss of identity is profound for the child and for the Splatsin community."

Disputes with the ministry have ended up in court battles and "jurisdictional tugs-of-war" between the Splatsin and the provincial government.

The Splatsin seek a declaration that its jurisdiction and authority over its children is an "inherent aboriginal right which pre-existed and survived the assertion of Crown sovereignty."

They are represented by Clarine Ostrove with Mandell Pinder in Vancouver.

Similar struggles have occurred, and still are occurring in the United States, which also took Native American children away from their parents and tribe, forced them into boarding school behind barbed wire and punished them for speaking their own language. The U.S. policy of assimilation led in the 1950s to the "termination" policy, under which many tribal members were given small plots of land, and their tribe extinguished by federal decree. The policy eventually was recognized as a disaster, and terminated itself, though some tribes never regained recognition - or their land.

Canada calls its Native American tribes First Nations. The Sepwepemc speak a language known in English as a member of the Salish family. For at least a century, the Sepwepemc have been a leader in trying to preserve their culture and language, which is still spoken by more than 1,600 people.

Salish languages were and are spoken in a large area of the Northwest United States and Southwest Canada, along the Pacific Ocean. It is an agglutinative language, which means its morphemes can be "glued" together, without inflections, to form longer words. It is known among linguists for "astonishing consonant clusters" - as a many as 13 consonants in a row, and is, understandably, difficult for Anglos to learn.

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