The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first five recommendations for change are directed at child welfare.

Dawn Flegel, Executive Director of Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society, talks about the steps her agency has taken to start repairing their relationship with Indigenous communities

When did Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid’s journey towards reconciliation with First Nations communities begin?

When I first started as executive director at Sarnia-Lambton five years ago, the relationships between the agency and First Nations weren’t good. First Nation communities viewed our agency quite negatively. People were very afraid of us and our authority. Thankfully, both the agency and the First Nations were at the same point in wanting something different and new and were willing to develop a relationship to make things better for kids and families in our communities. They have been amazing communities to work with.

What are some of the first steps your agency took to improve the relationship with First Nations?

The first thing we did was to turn a focus on First Nations services into a strategic direction. To do this we started an Indigenous Working Group on the board of directors, and added three positions to the board from each of the three First Nations in our jurisdiction. By making it a strategic direction, by adding board members, by talking about it, by valuing it at staff meetings and reporting on it, we really elevated the status of this work. We recognized that to make change every single day and every single decision in your agency has got to have the question embedded, “How does this impact Indigenous families and staff?”

What kind of challenges has your agency encountered in making these changes?

It’s not like you wake up one day and snap your fingers and say everything is going to be different. It’s a grind. It requires people to check themselves and some of their biases and assumptions. We dealt with some racist comments and beliefs at the beginning. We had to challenge the thinking right across the agency and set a new tone and culture.

Can you give a specific example that involved challenging the prevailing thinking?

We changed our hiring practices and that involved thinking differently about what “qualification” means, and re-evaluating the European lens that we usually apply. The child welfare field generally says that our workers need a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), that a BSW is the gold standard. But that kind of thinking has an impact if you want to hire Indigenous staff. You need to consider the impact of colonization, where First Nation people lost their status if they went on and got a post-secondary education. That has an impact on generations to come. You need to consider the poverty that exists in the communities and the opportunities to actually get a university degree or go to college. So if you want to hire Indigenous staff you have to question the whole belief system that a BSW bestows all the skills and knowledge.

What is your hiring policy today?

If you are an Indigenous person who wants to work in child welfare, we will consider a college diploma in a relevant field, we will help you go back to school, and we will assess the other skills and knowledge that you bring.

Was there a lot of pushback in your agency when you changed your hiring practices?

At the beginning I heard a lot of people saying, “There’s no qualified Indigenous staff, we can’t get people to come here.” The thinking was, “It’s about them.” We had to change our thinking to, “It’s about us,” because nobody is going to want to come and work here if we are not welcoming Indigenous culture, if we don’t have Indigenous people with authority and influence at the management level, and if we are not prepared to fundamentally do our work differently and take some risks to get us there. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

How has changing your hiring practices had an impact on your agency?

We created an Indigenous team to provide services to the three First Nations and any family that identifies as Indigenous. We started with all white people; now closer to half [of the workers] are Indigenous people. One of the key things that I think is making a difference is that we hired an Indigenous manager for one of the teams. That brings Indigenous staff to the agency when they see authority and influence at the management level.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission affirms the right of Indigenous governments to establish and maintain their own child welfare agencies and the Child, Youth and Family Services Act also supports this. Can you describe where Sarnia-Lambton CAS is at in terms of handing over jurisdiction to Indigenous communities?

I think the ultimate goal is to have Nations provide their own child welfare services but the Ministry’s approach to date has been through pre-mandated Indigenous agencies. We work differently with each of the three First Nations depending on the relationships and working protocols that we have. Overall, we think the consultation that is required by the Child, Youth and Family Services Act is a minimum standard. We view it as a true partnership and you can’t just consult at certain decision points. You need to be consulting all the way along about specific families but also about the broader service delivery.

It sounds like your agency has made considerable progress on the journey to reconciliation.

Oh, we are just getting started. There’s a quote I like that I got from Ron George, the band rep at Kettle and Stony Point, who learned it from an elder in his community. “If it takes a man ten minutes to walk into the woods, it will take a man ten minutes to walk out of the woods.” It’s this recognition that it took us a long time to get to where we are as a result of colonization, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop. Healing needs to take place in all of us. I’ve also heard a different version – that the man can get out of the woods a whole lot faster if there is a bear behind him. The bear motivates me.

There’s another quote that I always go back to when we get into our “let us come and help you” approach to reconciliation, which is a very patronizing approach. It’s a quote from Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal artist. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

First Nations in Sarnia-Lambton Area

Aamjiwnaang First Nation

The Aamjiwnaang First Nation (formally known as Chippewas of Sarnia) is a First Nations community of about 2,300 Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indigenous peoples  (850 of which live on Reserve). We are located on the St. Clair River, 3 miles south of the southern tip of Lake Huron in the city limits of Sarnia southwestern Ontario, Canada – just across the United States border from Port Huron, Michigan.

Our heritage language is Ojibwa.

The name Aamjiwnaang, (pronounced am-JIN-nun) means “at the spawning stream.”


Kettle and Stony Point First Nation

The Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation is located in southern Ontario along the shores of Lake Huron, 35 km from Sarnia, Ontario, near the Michigan border. The community has 1,000 members who live on the reserve and 900 who live off the reserve.


Walpole Island First Nation

Bkejwanong First Nation, also known as Walpole Island, is located near Wallaceburg, Ontario at the mouth of the St. Clair River. It encompasses six islands that have been occupied by the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Ottawa peoples for thousands of years. These Nations also represent the Council of the Three Fires, which is a political and cultural confederacy that has survived the test of time. Walpole Island has never been set apart as a reserve, giving it the distinction of being unceeded territory. Today, the Bkejwanong First Nation has a total membership of 4,338 people with 2,256 people living in the community.