SASKATOON — The Saskatoon Tribal Council says children in its care are safe and to suggest that it is “lax in (its) responsibilities is offensive.”
Tribal chief Felix Thomas says Saskatoon Tribal Council Child and Family Services has 67 children under its care on reserve.
“We know where they are, how they are and work with both families and communities to ensure their care,” Thomas said in a conference call Wednesday.
The comments come after Social Services Minister Donna Harpauer said Tuesday that the council has refused the ministry access to its files, so the government has no idea how many children are being cared for or what kind of care they’re receiving.
Harpauer said the province was taking back responsibility for the care of children from the council.
The Ministry of Social Services went to the Saskatoon Tribal Council office Wednesday and the council refused to provide the files.
Harpauer says the next step is to go to court.
First Nations agencies are required to monitor and track children in care on reserve and report back to the Ministry of Social Services. The province has what are called delegation agreements with First Nations agencies.
But the Saskatoon council hasn’t signed a new agreement and isn’t submitting monthly reports.
Harpauer says there has not been consistent reporting since 2008 and the province has been working in a void most of time. She said years of trying to negotiate a new deal between the province and the tribal council have reached an impasse.
Federal funding also expired in March.
Provincial auditor Judy Ferguson said last week that “without access to all files relating to children in care, the ministry cannot determine if children are properly cared for and protected.”
Children’s advocate Bob Pringle has also been denied access to files. But Pringle says he has a legal obligation to advocate for children on and off reserve.
“The Saskatoon Tribal Council has been less than co-operative on that front and that isn’t acceptable, in my point of view. And I believe that there’s a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability thus,” Pringle said Wednesday.
“I need to have the ability to follow up on a referral from a community on reserve or I need to be able to pursue investigative work if necessary.”
The Saskatoon council has seven member nations within a 200-kilometre radius of Saskatoon.
Thomas says the province is unhappy with the current accord on child and family services and is trying to force a new agreement in order to subjugate First Nations’ authority.
“In our opinion, this issue is politically motivated,” said Thomas.
“Our seven First Nations communities will not take this lying down.”
The chief also says their operating practices are held to the highest standards of accountability.
Harpauer says the original accord was signed in the 1990s and doesn’t have any measure of accountability, that’s why a new agreement is necessary. The minister says she can’t dispute the level of care because it’s simply not clear what’s happening.
“By all means, if he is giving a higher level of care, that is awesome, but we don’t know,” she said.
By Jennifer Graham in Regina