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In 2009 Tikinagan celebrated a significant milepost in its history: 25 years as a child welfare agency. Reaching this landmark inspired us to pause and look back on our development.
Tikinagan had its modest beginnings in 1984 in a giant tent in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (formerly Big Trout Lake). During an annual Keewaywin Conference, our leaders discussed the children who were taken into care by non-native agencies when their families experienced troubles. The Chiefs lamented the double hardship children suffered when they were removed from their families and their culture. The Chiefs unanimously agreed we could do a better job of helping Anishnabe families.
Archival picture from NAN region
Nishnawbe-Aski Nation leaders signed an agreement that summer with the Ministry of Community and Social Services to create Tikinagan and gradually transfer services to First Nations people over five years. Eabametoong (Fort Hope) Chief Harvey Yesno suggested the name Tikinagan to symbolize the care and protection the traditional cradleboard provides to our children. Halfway into the five-year transfer, we received full designation as a Children's Aid Society. Along with Payukotayno Family Services of James Bay, Tikinagan became the first Aboriginal agency recognized as a child protection organization in Ontario and the first in Canada to have jurisdiction over both Native and non-Native children.
Wally McKay, our first Executive Director stated in our 1987-88 annual report: "Yes, there have been trials in Tikinagan's first four years, as we learned to translate the early idealism into workable reality. And yes, there have been mistakes. But they have been honest mistakes, from which we have learned valuable lessons. Just as important, they have been our mistakes..."
Since its inception, Tikinagan has worked with First Nations to share responsibilities to strengthen families. At the Chiefs' direction, Tikinagan developed our community-based model Mamow Obiki-ahwahsoowin, meaning "Everyone working together to raise our children." To improve service delivery, we began a slow but steady move to open offices in the north. In 1993-94, we had four regional workers and a supervisor located up north. By 2005, we had 9 branch offices with community-based staff in nearly every First Nation. By 2006, we had 10 branch offices, 17 satellite offices and 64% of service staff community-based. This decentralization to the community level continues.
During our 25 years, we faced many challenges. Against a backdrop of social and cultural upheaval and limited community resources, we strived to provide a quality service with only a small pool of educated employees fluent in the language. We built staff training and skills development into all our programs. We also helped our own workers develop strategies to cope with personal issues of grief and societal stress. In the late 1980s, a disturbing trend towards suicides and suicide attempts emerged, particularly amongst our youth. Few communities have been unaffected by this sadly ongoing tragedy. Tikinagan has struggled to deal with growing numbers of children and youth in care, again reflecting the serious social issues in the north. The residential school syndrome is part of the problem as well as "an accelerated cultural transition and an eroded economic base within our communities" explained Board Chair Saggius Rae in our 1995-96 annual report. We have made every effort to deliver culturally appropriate services in the face of these problems and in spite of almost continual funding challenges.
Still, over the years, Tikinagan has held true to the Chiefs' vision. We have forged new ground with our customary care services, striving to keep children within their nuclear and extended families, communities and culture and away from the provincial court system. We have launched an initiative to return children who were placed outside our region. We are working to develop more northern foster homes and specialized foster resources. We continue to develop training and certification programs for our staff and foster parents to better serve families and their children. We have developed a prevention and support program called Mamow Oshki Pimagihowin. We involve Chiefs, Councils, communities and Elders in treatment plans for families and children. In 2005-06, we helped establish the North-South Partnership for Children, or Mamow Sha-way-gi-kay-win to help children and families in our region. Mamow Sha-way-gi-kay-win is now incorporated and operating independently providing considerable assistance to northern families and educating southerners about northern First Nations living conditions.
In acknowledging the challenges Tikinagan has met since its inception, Board Chair Harvey Kakegamic noted in our 2009 annual report: "The decision to reclaim our authority to protect and care for our children...has led to vital changes for Anishnabe families in our communities...We have much to be proud of..." However, Harvey continued: "The Creator has entrusted us with the responsibility of building strong families and communities and we accept this responsibility with humility and gratitude. I am aware that we still have a long way to go in our journey toward healthy families and communities...With our Creator's help, we will get there."