Kookum elders say their wisdom needed for child welfare system in Manitoba

WINNIPEG – Aboriginal grandmothers say they have some answers to fix Manitoba’s child welfare system.

The “kookum” elders testified Monday at the inquiry into the death of Phoenix Sinclair, a little girl who was in and out of the welfare system for most of her short life.

Billie Schibler, a founder of the Kookum Council, say the kookum were the wisdom keepers and they worked to ensure the community worked in a way that honoured the children and made decisions that reflected a good future for generations.

Margaret Lavallee told the inquiry that balance was lost when residential schools tore families apart.

The grandmothers said a healing centre for families should be established in Winnipeg and named in honour of Phoenix — the little girl was murdered by her mother and stepfather at Fisher River First Nation in 2005.

The Kookum Council also wants a watchdog agency like the Office of the Children’s Advocate specifically for aboriginal children, who make up 80 per cent of Manitoba’s nearly 10,000 kids in care.

The fallout from parents and communities losing their kids, their purpose and their spirit is still being felt, said Lavallee. It’s at the root of why aboriginals make up the majority of kids in care, suicides, the incarcerated and substance abusers. The toxic residue of racism and feelings of shame persist, she said.

“Our needs are so over-represented,” said Lavallee, a former aboriginal awareness adviser with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

The grandmothers also suggested the creation of a federal commissioner to oversee “silos” in child welfare among different levels of government and jurisdiction.

“People stop dead at their part when it crosses jurisdiction,” said Schibler, the former head of the Office of the Children’s Advocate who now runs Metis Child and Family Services Authority.

“There is no accountability to children when you think about it, really. Nobody has responsibility.” Long-term decision making doesn’t consider the next generation, never mind the next seven, Schibler said.

“We don’t see that happening in Ottawa.”