Youth Protection is a community affair in spite of the fact that the Youth Protection Act is a foreign law to Cree and other native communities.
Before Canadian law was introduced into the communities, the concept of caring for children is a value that has kept the Cree communities strong for thousands of years.
No one wanted to see children hurt or neglected. If children were venturing out on to thin ice or if there was a bear or wolf around, adults would step in to protect the child. There was even the possibility of traditional adoptions if parents were not able to care for their children.
An elder in Nemaska, John Tent, confirmed that if a family was experiencing problems with a child, other family and community members would step in to help. He pointed out that if one adult spoke to the child to correct some misbehavior and he or she did not listen, other adults would continue to talk to the child until the offending behavior was corrected.
The concept of “community” has certainly changed quite a bit since that time. The dangers now are more likely to be parents who are partying, fighting or taking off for Val D’Or and Chibougamou without making adequate childcare arrangements and these are the times that social workers must step in to protect the children.
It is not always a pleasant job and it certainly would not win them a popularity contest in the communities. But (as is consistent with traditional ways) someone has to intervene and speak for children who are scared, powerless, and whose only wish is to have a mommy and daddy in their right mind and emotionally available to them.
And although the Youth Protection Act is a foreign law, it does not exclude traditional ways of helping. The Atikamekw First Nation provides a good example of this. When Social Services is alerted to a child at risk, every attempt is made with family members (through a Family Council), with community members (through a Circle of Helpers), and with elders (through a Council of Elders) to find solutions to the problem before invoking the law and using the court system.
The protection of children is everyone’s responsibility because Cree communities need them to be future leaders. A child who feels safe in his or her home and is cared for with the appropriate love, support and structure is more likely to do better in school. Consequently, he or she could go- on to realize his or her full potential.
This is especially important because Cree communities in the future need teachers, nurses, doctors, mechanics, dentists, lawyers, environmentalists, administrators, builders, and computer specialists (not to mention trappers and hunters) in order to be more autonomous and to reduce the dependency on non-natives, which sometimes leads to problems of recruitment and retention of personnel.