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First Nations communities and the provincial government have taken first steps in hopes of creating a better child welfare system.

Families minister Scott Fielding, Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels and Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Chief Jim Bear spoke to the media today after a two day summit where they heard from families affected by their involvement with Child and Family Services.

Daniels said it’s still early but he believes they’re at a good starting point.

“We’re beginning to develop a strategy on which we can start to build upon,” Daniels said. “We have to bring everyone together so we’re clear on what we need to do. That’s what we’re doing, we’re bringing people together, identifying what resources are needed and who is going to be part of this.”

Fielding said this is one of three summits the province will take part in with Indigenous organizations in the province.

The Southern Chiefs Organization represents 33 southern First Nation communities in the province. Fielding says the province will also be meeting with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc (MKO) – which represents over 30 nations in Northern Manitoba – and the Manitoba Metis Federation in the coming months.

All of these organizations will then meet with the federal government later this year to make sure they are all on the same page.

“If we don’t have the same priorities then it’s not going to be successful,” Fielding said. “The province is very interested in reforming the child welfare system and Ottawa has talked about child welfare reform in the past so we’re very interested to be at the table with them.”

“Most importantly this needs to be led by Indigenous leadership,” Fielding continued. “This is the first step in terms of listening and learning to make sure we’re working with Indigenous leadership groups to make sure this is done the right way.”

In mid-October of last year, Fielding announced the province would conduct an overhaul of the child welfare system after a report in 2013 suggested the province do something about the number of children in care. Part of that overhaul was to conduct these summits and fulfill a promise of customary care by the former NDP government. Customary care ensures if a child is taken away from their parents, they can stay in their communities with extended family.

Manitoba has the highest number of kids in government care per capita, according to the province. Approximately 11,000 children are in care in the province and nearly 90 per cent are Indigenous.

“It has been a disaster,” Bear said. “It has to be under our authority and it must be community driven.”

“We want to bring our children home and keep them at home. That’s the only way we’re going to have a healthy nation.”

Daniels believes the best path to reconciliation lies with children and youth and says overhauling a system that disproportionately affects Indigenous children is a great place to start.

“Everything we deal with as a society starts with our children,” he said. “If we can get it right with our children the rest will fall into place in terms of creating job opportunities, keeping people out of jail and achieving higher educational attainment rates.”

Last month, the province also announced its Child Welfare Committee, made up of seven community members.