Yukon landscape.

Pathways: Partnering to serve and support First Nations families

In June 2023, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Government and the Government of Yukon signed a
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collaborate on the delivery of child and family services.

The MOU guides how the two governments work together, from frontline workers through to leadership. It includes trauma-informed holistic approaches to ensure cultural safety.

Leeann Kayseas is the Director of Family and Children's Services with the Yukon government. She says their legal responsibility is to promote the safety and well-being of children who need protection by providing services to children and their families.

“Family and Children’s Services works with families and their Yukon First Nation to ensure that children remain connected to their family, community and culture while they are receiving services from us,” Leeann explains.

Building relationships

Allison Kormendy is Director of Ni’ehłyat Nidähjì’ (Our Families, our Future) with Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in. Her department is responsible for administrating, managing and delivering child, youth and family programs and services for Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in.

She says the MOU with the Yukon government is grounded in Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in values and principles.

“It speaks to the main values that we hold, which are integrity, balance, interconnection, respect, accountability, cooperation, cultural safety, substantive equality and transparency,” Allison says.

Leeann says part of the MOU process is to work with each Yukon First Nations government to ensure the agreement reflects their traditional beliefs and values.

“We sit together and really get into those discussions," she says.

The MOU process can help build relationships and bring the two governments together while recognizing and respecting each side.

Allison says the process reminds her of a lesson a Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Elder recently shared with her.

“They said we have to learn to walk in both worlds – to have one foot in our traditions and culture and one foot in the modern world in respect to legislation and policies,” she explains.

Terri Cairns is the Director of Justice with Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN). Her role is to oversee Child and Family Supports, Restorative Justice and Community Safety, and Recreation for the community.

Over the past three years KDFN’s services and support for children and families has more than doubled. It hasn’t always been that way.

Following years of tension with the Yukon government over social workers apprehending children, the KDFN and Yukon government created a liaison committee in 2011 focused on child welfare services.

The committee provided a forum for information sharing, collaborative planning, implementation and evaluation in child welfare services.

In 2012, KDFN and the Yukon government signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), which was the first agreement of its kind. It formalized their working relationship and helped to open the lines of communication and repair the harms that had been done.

“The MOA was built on common goals to provide child welfare programs and services that kept KDFN children safe as well as connected to their families, community and culture,” Terri says.

The Ni’ehłyat Nidähjì’ (Our Families, our Future) department of Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Government hosts family fun days as part of the services they deliver to families and children.
Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Government

Empowering communities

The child welfare agreements between the Yukon government and First Nations are an important step forward in collaboration.

Allison says the agreement ensures Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in families and children are fully supported.

“I think the impact of some of the programs and services is going to be astronomical,” she says. “Our families are going to be better supported in the way that they feel safe.”

For Leeann’s team, these agreements help to clarify the roles between the two governments.

“They help us to truly understand how our relationship is working and how we're working together with families,” Leeann says.

Allison says a lot of government systems don’t work for First Nations people, but the MOU is an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and move forward.

“We can take what we've learned from all of the experiences, the knowledge and wisdom and put them into our processes and into our policies moving forward,” says Allison.

In 2018, the Yukon government created a Social Work Enhancement Team to be based in KDFN’s McIntyre subdivision.

The team provided outreach and home visits to families, but as outlined in the MOA, Family and Children’s Services social workers could only meet with a KDFN family or attend a KDFN family home with a KDFN Child and Family Liaison Worker present.

Terri says the project fostered reconciliation and improved outcomes for KDFN families.

“It was a collaborative pilot project that developed a consistent and culturally sensitive approach to child welfare practices in KDFN,” she says.

Two people fleshing a moose antler at a Kwanlin Dün First Nation organized youth moose hunt.
Kwanlin Dün First Nation

Returning power

Under the Final Agreements, Yukon First Nations have the authority to administer and manage their own children’s services programs.

Leeann sees her role as offering a short-term solution. "We recognize that Yukon First Nations have jurisdiction over child and family services, and the Yukon government is only delivering those services for now," she says.

As the service provider, Leeann says it’s Family and Children’s Services’ job to navigate how best to work together with Yukon First Nations under the Child and Family Services Act.

"We're trying to figure out how we can do that together in a way that makes sure families, children and youth get what they need and that the First Nation is involved," she says.

In Dawson City, Allison says her department, Ni’ehłyat Nidähjì’, is still in its infancy.

With the support of citizens and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government, the department is growing and taking shape to better serve and support the needs of the community.

Moving forward, Allison says Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in‘s priority is to gain jurisdiction and to create legislation that brings Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in values and principles back to policy – a significant step in the path of self-determination.

For KDFN, they have seen their role shift. By 2020, the KDFN Child and Family Liaison team was actually leading on KDFN case files, and they no longer needed the additional support of the Yukon government’s Social Work Enhancement team.

Terri says the numbers reflect the improvements in services.

“Our child protection caseloads and the number of KDFN children in care has decreased,” she says.

In 2023, most of the team’s caseload consists of KDFN families proactively reaching out for support before circumstances become too dire or overwhelming. Three years ago, most cases were supporting families with open child protection files.

First Nations and the Yukon government are finding ways to collaborate and work together to provide the best supports for children and it is making a real difference in positive outcomes for families.

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