They were the cutest kids in the world. It’s not what you might expect from Cree kids in a centre for troubled youth in Val d’Or. But that’s what we found—half a dozen of the sweetest, most open-hearted, curious and funny kids you could meet.

They were each there for their own individual, unique reasons. Some had a difficult home life. Others were young offenders. We met a soft-spoken teenaged boy with an intense face who was from Waskaganish and had lost his brother to suicide not long ago. He said he wanted to get into painting when he got back home. He told us in moving words about himself and some of his thoughts, and then finished by saying, “I’m not good with words.” He left us smiling with his humility. There was also a pretty girl from Chisasibi who had curly hair and was convinced I looked like Patrick Swayze.

But despite their good humour, the day we visited the Cree unit of the Centre d’orientation l’Etape, the kids were nervous and worried. It was Monday, and they had spent the weekend thinking about the news that they would soon be taken out of the centre and transferred some 500 km away to Cree Territory. They are being moved, first, to a group home in Mistissini, then in mid-September to a bush camp near LG-3 run by Chisasibi Elder and trapper Robbie Matthew Sr., where their therapy will include being immersed in the traditional Cree way of life.

They might not know it, but these kids are at the very heart of a profound change in how Crees will relate to the social services and justice systems. That Monday, all they knew is they were being taken away from the counsellors and home they had known for many months, and sometimes years. In fact, they are part of a revolution.

Ten years of troubled relations between the centre in Val d’Or and Cree social services workers came to an end on the afternoon of Aug. 1. That day, three officials of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services walked into the Cree unit and took five kids back to Cree land.

On Wednesday, July 27, the Director of Youth Protection for the Cree Territory, Soraya Cote, sent the centre a letter that must have raised a few eyebrows. “Serious problems exist for all Cree children which are entrusted to the reception centre,” wrote Soraya. The problems, she said, are “so serious that they jeopardize the readjustment process of the Cree youth to such an extent that their development can be put at risk. Furthermore, their rights are not respected. Consequently, an alternative has to be examined.”

After running off a long list of problems with the centre, Soraya revealed the alternative she had in mind. “We advise you that steps are immediately undertaken in order to repatriate all the budgets presently available to your centre for Cree clientele,” she wrote. “Please make sure that all the youth from the Bridge [the Cree unit] are prepared and ready to leave the reception centre with all their personal belongings by 1 o’clock on Monday afternoon, August 1st, 1994.”

“We had no choice any more,” Soraya explained as we waited for 1 o’clock to roll around in the offices of the health board’s lawyer in Val d’Or. “We had to do something.”

The lawyer was brought in because no one knew what reception they would get when the health board officials arrived at the centre. Several days had passed since the centre’s director had gotten Soraya’s letter, and he hadn’t responded. Soraya didn’t know if the centre would let the kids go. If it didn’t, the Crees’ lawyer was ready to file an injunction demanding the kids’ release. As a youth protection director, Soraya has almost as much power under the law as a police officer or judge, and is responsible for deciding where a troubled youth will be placed, whether it’s a centre in Val d’Or or a bush camp in James Bay.

“I’m very confident,” she said just one hour before we descended on the centre. “We can’t do worse than they have.”

But everyone was still tense. It was as if a Cree Chief was planning to go to Sault Ste-Marie and take Cree kids out of residential school without bothering to ask anyone. The operation almost felt like a military assault.

Soraya made us promise not to take photos when we got to the centre because it might have made a potentially difficult situation even worse. Over the weekend, Soraya, who is Innu herself, had to reassure some of the kids who had questions about the move. Also, one kid who was being transferred to a group home instead of to Mistissini ran away from the centre. Soraya said the kid might have run away because she didn’t want to be around to watch her friends leave.

The incident demonstrates yet again the centre’s bad relations with the Cree health board. As part of her job, Soraya is responsible for these kids and must be informed of any developments affecting their safety, and so must the parents. But the Crees are rarely informed right away when a child runs away, and usually only when they return. In fact, sometimes it seems like the Crees are the last ones to know. This time, Soraya was told only when she herself called the centre on Monday on other business.

When we arrived at the centre on Aug. 1, there was uncertainty in the air. Soraya was in the office of the Cree unit’s supervisor, discussing the transfer of the kids. The supervisor had just come back from vacation, and after six years of counselling Cree kids, was suddenly learning that his work was at an abrupt end. He was dearly upset. As we saw later, he cared deeply for the children in his care, and they felt the same way about him.

Three counsellors were sitting in the unit’s large, sunny living room. Their jobs had also suddenly ceased to exist. The kids were sitting around, talking and laughing from time to time, but very aware of the situation unfolding around them.

We sat at a table with Marlene Dixon, a Cree from Waswanipi and the interim inland supervisor of Cree social services, and waited for the van that was to take the kids to Mistissini. Driving it was Joe Neeposh, coordinator of the group home in Mistissini. Joe was running late, so everyone sat in a circle and we met the kids. At first they were shy, but they opened up quickly. They were wonderful—warm, fun-loving and bright.

Later, as everyone packed into the van, one Cree girl who had stayed a little quieter than the others burst into tears. She was the only one in the unit staying behind. Her mother lives in Val d’Or and the regional social services department refused a Cree request to have the girl transferred to Mistissini along with her friends. Soraya sat with her for long time, trying to comfort her. (Since then, the girl has retained a lawyer to take the regional youth protection director to court, because she also wants to go to Mistissini.)

Back at the lawyer’s office, Soraya told us that run aways were actually a growing problem at the centre. This had made the transfer to Mistissini even more urgent. Since the spring, Soraya said there had been a marked increase in the number of kids running away.

It was evidence that something was very wrong with the centre’s treatment of native children. The most dramatic proof of this came when two Inuit kids hung themselves in the centre, one in 1988 and the other in 1991. The suicides were so alarming that Quebec’s Youth Protection Commission launched an inquiry into the centre’s treatment of Inuit and Cree kids, and in the end recommended that they be taken back to their own communities. Today, Inuit health officials are closely watching the Cree repatriation effort and may follow in their footsteps.

Soraya ran off a long list of problems with the centre. First, the centre was getting $300,000 a year from the Quebec government to train and hire Cree youth counsellors, but in the last 10 years, not one Cree had been hired into a permanent position in the unit that handles Cree kids. That makes $3 million of wasted money over the last decade. On top of that, Quebec provides the Val d’Or centre about $900,000 a year to operate the Cree unit. Soraya wants that money transferred to the Crees to help run the new bush camp.

She added that the kids had no meaningful programs to help them build a strong sense of identity so they could reintegrate into their communities. “Where I see a lack is they’re not doing anything appropriate to the culture. It’s a very different environment. They lose contact with their families. There is a change of food and then you expect them to be healthy. They have wild food maybe once per season,” she said.

“What do they do all day,” she asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. You tell me.” Some of the kids continued their education, but Soraya described the centre’s educators as “poorly trained” and said they often speak only French. The psychologist at the centre also doesn’t speak English, and certainly not Cree.

“When a youth is in crisis, it is unthinkable that he or she cannot communicate because the educator does not understand nor speak his language,” wrote Soraya in her letter to the centre’s director. “How can a Cree child progress in such an environment?”

Robbie Matthew’s bush camp will be set up with technical help requested from the Cree Trappers’ Association, as well as educational resources from the Cree School Board. The camp will have room for 12 kids, and appropriate school courses will be planned.

Soraya acknowledged that not all the kids will be happy in the bush camp: “Some of these kids may not adjust easily.” But she spoke with optimism about the new system. Before coming to James Bay, she worked in social services for many years in northern Alberta, northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. It was in the NWT where the first bush camps for young offenders appeared just a few years ago. Kids participated in trapping, hunting and cooking, and learned about the land and native culture. Soraya said all this helped the kids develop a sense of identity and made them less likely to commit an offense when they went home.

“Sometimes you can’t change the environment these kids came from, so you have to give them the tools and skills to deal with that environment,” she said. “You give them a sense of ownership. The kid will go back to the same friends, so they have to be strong enough to make their own decisions and say, ‘I don’t want to sniff or I don’t want to drink. ‘ We can t lock them up until they’re 18.”

Soraya said when kids are sent from northern communities to southern youth centres, they sometimes come back even less able to cope with their lives. That’s because they’ve been living in a very structured environment where their daily routines are all planned out for them. When they go back home, they find it hard to readjust to the freedom. “They watch cable TV all day. Sometimes they reoffend just so they can go back when they’re bored,”said Soraya.

“I do believe they need to be proud of who they are. What’s here,” she said, putting her hand over her heart, “has to come out.”