Northwestern Ontario Métis Child and Family Services holds open house for new agency

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

The Métis people of northwestern Ontario now have a new agency in place dedicated to keeping families together in a culturally sensitive way.

The Northwestern Ontario Métis Child and Family Services (NWOMCFS) held an open house of their Fort Frances location on Williams Avenue on Friday afternoon, giving those in town a chance to check out their office and learn a bit more about what they are aiming to accomplish. Similar in scope to other agencies that work with families, the NWOMCFS’s role is to protect and ensure the safety of Métis people of all ages, from infants through to elders in a way that is congruent with Métis culture. The NOMFCS is the first Métis child and family services agency in the province out of a total of nine Métis regions.

According to several individuals who were on site for the open house, including Métis Nation of Ontario Region 1 Councillor Theresa Stenlund and NWOMCFS board treasurer Brady Hupet, the organization is a realization that the Métis Nation of Ontario did not have an equivalent agency in place to those run by Indigenous and non-Indigenous equivalents. This meant that when other Child and Family Services (CFS) agencies worked with Métis families, they could not offer culturally relevant programming, nor necessarily place children in need with Métis families to allow them to be part of their culture.

“It’s our culture, and it’s our people,” Hupet said.

“This is something that has been brought forth by the people, for the people. I can’t say that enough, because it is people driven, and our people driven. This is something they asked for, that they see a need for in our community that is culturally set and meant for our own people.”

Stenlund noted that the program came from recognizing that gap in what the Métis nation could provide, acknowledging that the Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations have something of a head start with their equivalent agencies, but that it also meant the Métis agency had a strong framework to start from. Indeed, the quickness with which the agency was able to come together spoke not only to the framework, but to the involvement of the Métis people who wanted to see it come to life.

“I worked for First Nations child welfare for 20 years,” Stenlund said.

“I just always felt, as a Métis citizen myself, we should be having this. It was great that the First Nations had it for themselves, but I just felt that there was something missing, that the Métis people should have the same opportunity. So we just approached the province and started working with them, and in consultation process with the citizens here in northwestern Ontario. Then the citizens gave the mandate and the direction to us to build it, so it’s here for the people here in all four communities in northwestern Ontario.”

The level of support and desire to have this agency come to be can’t be ignored. Hupet and Stenlund both noted that when it came time to consult with the Métis citizens of the region – a population of roughly 3,000 – they saw approximately 1,000 individuals participate in the process, whereas other regions in the province saw turnouts with numbers in the low hundreds, at best.

The NWOMCFS is currently in its earliest phases of programming, which will centre around prevention services, described by the agency in a pamphlet as “a continuum of services from public education, targeted programs for at-risk populations, to intensive family preservation for families in crisis.”

“Preventative care can address all stressors and risk factors that impact ones physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being,” the pamphlet continues.

“All programs are designed to heal, support, and promote healthy development and living. Preventative care can keep children out of the protection system, can support their reunification with their family after protection, and can also support children not at all involved in the child protection system. Preventative care is all about advocacy, wrap-around services, and support for communities to build, enhance and promote health and wellness.”

Northwestern Ontario Métis Child and Family Services (NWOMCFS) preservation worker Rhonda Howells, left, Métis Nation of Ontario Region 1 Councillor Theresa Stenlund, NWOMCFS prevention worker Samantha Bruyere-Tucker, NWOMCFS board treasurer Brady Hupet, NWOMCFS board president Marlene Davidson, Fort Frances mayor Andrew Hallikas and Sunset Country Metis council member Wade Nelson posed for a photo during the open house for the agency’s Fort Frances location on Williams Avenue on Friday, February 17, 2023. – Ken Kellar photo

The agency has already begun offering a wide assortment of programs for both Métis and non-Métis citizens to take part in, from culturally relevant cooking lessons to parent and child programs and more. Dot painting, language lessons and Métis jigging classes are all part of regular programming on offer from the Fort Frances office that helps to connect families with each other while broadening the scope of cultural knowledge and skills. For NWOMCFS board president Marlene Davidson, the official opening and realization of this type of programming across the region gives a boost to the Métis people that allows them the self-governance they have as a right.

“We’re working in self-government now,” Davidson said.

“When I listened to the people in the Yukon, when they got self-governance, they were so happy. They said, ‘this means we don’t have to ask anymore.’ we can do things on our own and recognize the needs of our people, and that’s what we’ve done here. Theresa has been in that business for a long time, so she knew what was needed. So by golly, we’ve done it. It’s happened. The government couldn’t believe it when she presented to them for funding. They said, ‘my goodness, you’ve done this in three years?'”

While the program is operating on a scaled back basis as previously mentioned, as time goes on the agency will continue to expand its programming to continue to offer increasing services to those living in the northwest of the province. Eventually, Stenlund and Hupet said, the ideal is that the Northwestern Ontario Métis Child and Family services can be the place where citizens can come to reclaim their lost heritage, to strengthen their cultural ties, and where families can learn the tools and skills necessary to better the lives of the entire family unit.

“I think it’s just a monumental step that the region has taken forward, to looking after and taking care of our own,” Stendlund said.