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Cowichan Tribes votes to reclaim child services from the province

Of the 416 members who cast ballots, 87 per cent or 347 voted in favour; 69 were opposed.
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Chief Lydia Hwitsum speaks Nov. 9, 2023, about a Cowichan Tribes vote to reclaim full authority over child and family services. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Cowichan Tribes members have voted to take over child and family services from the province, a process that began three years ago.

Of the 416 members who cast ballots, 83 per cent or 347 voted in favour; 69 were opposed.

“This is a historic moment for our community. Huy tseep q’u to everyone who took the time to vote, contribute to the development of the Law, and learn about our Law,” Cowichan Tribes said in statement Friday.

Voting began online Nov. 10 and wrapped up Friday with an in-person vote.

The nation’s child and family service, Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem (pronounced La-lum utal Smun-am), has been operating under the authority of the provincial government, which Chief Lydia Hwitsum previously said limits its ability to support families according to Cowichan teachings.

Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem has helped more than 40 Cowichan children apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Development reunite with their familes in the past three years, and has not removed any Cowichan children from their parents in the past two years.

The nation has been pushing for child and family services to be under its control since 2020, after the federal government’s Bill C-92 — passed in 2019 — allowed for Indigenous groups to assume full jurisdiction over child and family services.

Cowichan Tribes regulations concerning its child and family services will now prevail over federal or provincial law in cases of disagreement, according to information First Nation distributed about the plan.

The transition will begin in phases starting in 2024, with service initially covering all of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

Provincial child and family services law will apply elsewhere until Cowichan Tribes strikes a deal with the Ministry of Children and Family Development on how the Cowichan Tribes Child and Family Services Authority will be involved in cases not on the islands.

Lalum’utul’ Smun’eem will continue to be fully funded by provincial and federal governments, and receive additional funding for new services.

Indigenous children are vastly over-represented in foster care in Canada, making up 53.8 per cent of children under 14 in care, despite making just 7.7 per cent of the overall population under 14, according to census data from 2021, the most recent year available.

— With a file from Roxanne Egan-Elliott

mjlo@timescolonist.com