Current Problems

Call to Action # 38: Justice (25-42)

Quebec Cree leaders move to adapt youth services to the ‘Eeyou way of life’

September 14, 2023

Cree Youth Protection Commission to travel territory gathering stories and solutions

The chairperson of the Cree health board and a well-known Indigenous youth advocate smile at the camera, one holding a gifted beaded medallion.
Bertie Wapachee, left, chairperson of the Cree health board welcomes Cindy Blackstock, right, the well known Indigenous youth advocate to the launch of the Cree Youth Protection Commission in Mistissini, Que. (Vanna Blacksmith/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: The Quebec Cree nation wants to change youth protection laws and services to adapt them to  Eeyou values, traditions and culture. 

On Sept. 7, officials launched the aah chishtipistihch-uschiniichisiu sikischaayimuwiniyiu or Cree Youth Protection Commission, an extensive, several months-long consultation process to gather ideas on how to change youth protection and eventually the youth criminal justice system.

“What we are looking for are new solutions. New ideas on how we can change the law, but change the system too … [to change] youth protection to integrate Cree culture, Cree content,” said Bertie Wapachee, the chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.

Wapachee said he hopes to commission will hear from everyone — elders, grandparents, parents, youth and children, as well as many of the Cree organizations, such as the Cree School Board, women’s association, youth council and the Eeyou Eenou Police Force, among others.

Representatives from these organizations, as well as the Cree Nation Government, are also part of a task force set up to advise the board on the recommendations of the commission. 

Stakeholders and community members gather at the Cree youth protection commission launch event in at in Mistissini.
Stakeholders and community members gather at the launch of the Cree Youth Protection Commission at the Neoskweskau Sports Complex gymnasium in Mistissini, Que. (Vanna Blacksmith/CBC)

There will be several ways to contribute to the commission, according to a release — focus groups, testimonies and group discussions. “There are a lot of our old ways that we can integrate into a new youth protection system,” said Wapachee.

Decolonizing youth services

Wapachee said the commission is an important step in the decolonization of youth services in the Cree Nation and something that has been a personal goal of his since an early job he had in youth protection more than 30 years ago.

“We can no longer have a system that feels like a babysitting service … We cannot focus on just taking children away, let the parents party for a while, [then] bring the children back to the same environment.” said Wapachee in his speech at the launch on Sept. 7 in Mistissini. 

Commissioners Bella M. Petawabano and Lorraine Spencer will travel to all the Cree communities between now and next summer gathering testimonies, although it’s unclear when exactly those visits will begin.

Lorraine Spencer, left, Bella M. Petawabano, right, are the new Cree youth protection commissioners
Commissioners Lorraine Spencer and Bella M. Petawabano will visit Cree communities to gather stories and solutions for better youth protective services. (Vanna Blacksmith/CBC)

Petawabano has several decades of experience as a senior manager with the Cree health board, including two terms as chairperson. 

Lorraine Spencer is trained in counselling psychology and is from Chisasibi, the largest of the Cree communities in Quebec. Spencer worked with the Cree School Board for many years and most recently with the Justice and Correctional Services department for the Cree Nation Government. 

“We have the capacity to make changes such as laws that govern us. We have the financial and human resources. We have our traditions, our culture, our language, our values. Our solutions have to come from us.” said Spencer on the commission’s website. 

‘Fueled by a big fire’: Cindy Blackstock

Cindy Blackstock has spent her entire career advocating for Indigenous youth. The Gitxsan activist from Burns Lake, B.C., is the executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada. She is also a social work professor at McGill University.

Blackstock was on hand for the launch of the Cree Youth Protection Commission. She said there are many underlying societal inequalities that fuel the failings in the current model of youth protection and youth justice systems in Indigenous communities. 

Cindy Blackstock shares words of advocacy for Indigenous child welfare and youth justice.
Cindy Blackstock shares words of advocacy for Indigenous child welfare and youth justice. (Vanna Blacksmith/CBC)

“Is it child welfare that’s the problem? Is it youth justice that’s the problem? I actually don’t think that those are the major problems. They are both fueled by a big fire.” said Blackstock.

Blackstock said those fires are poor housing, addictions and domestic violence that stem from intergenerational trauma and contemporary colonialism.  “No matter how pretty of a tool or a law that you put on top of that, if you don’t deal with the fire, it will burn,” said Blackstock, acknowledging the important work the commission will do.

From left to right, John S. Matoush, Norman A. Wapachee, Bella M. Petawabano, Lorraine Spencer, Catherine Lemay, Cindy Blackstock, Bertie Wapachee and Michael Petawabano.
From left to right: John S. Matoush, Norman A. Wapachee, Bella M. Petawabano, Lorraine Spencer, Catherine Lemay, Cindy Blackstock, Bertie Wapachee and Michael Petawabano.(Vanna Blacksmith/CBC)

Also on hand for the launch of the commission was Catherine Lemay, Quebec’s national director of youth protection. “Services developed to contribute to the well-being of Indigenous populations cannot be the same as [those for] children in the rest of Quebec,” she said, adding it’s important to adapt services to Indigenous realities, traditions and desire to take a ‘holistic’ approach to health and well-being. 

A final report and recommendations are expected sometime in 2024, said Wapachee. And will be used in negotiations with the Quebec government.

Eyou Dipajimoon (Cree): 20:02

Cree Health Board Chairperson Bertie Wapachee talks about the new Youth Protection Commission.

Click on the following link to listen to the above audio:

On September 7, 2023, the Cree Health Board launched its new Youth Protection Commission (aah chishtipistihch awash-uschiniichisiu sikischaayimuwiniyi). The goal is to align services with Cree values and realities in our communities. To find out more, we spoke with Cree Health Board Chairperson Bertie Wapachee.


Vanna Blacksmith, Journalist

Vanna Blacksmith is two-spirit and Eenou-Anishinaabe Bear Clan from the Cree Nation of Mistissini with Ojibwe roots from Wiikwemikoong Unceded Territory. She is a journalist and part of CBC’s Indigenous Pathways first cohort. She currently resides in Kanien’kehá:ka territory of Tiohtià:ke, also known as Montreal.

With files from Marjorie Kitty