WINNIPEG -- The advocate for First Nations children in Manitoba has set up large teepees in the shadow of the legislature and is fasting to draw attention to the province's "broken" child-welfare system.
Cora Morgan plans to go without food or water, along with five other women, until Thursday. Sitting around a sacred fire, which is to be snuffed at the end of the fast, they want to draw attention to the problems within Child and Family Services and seek spiritual guidance.
"I think there needs to be greater understanding in mainstream society, because I don't think people are fully aware of what's going on right now," Morgan said Tuesday. "Our hope is that we start showing that change is needed."
Manitoba has more than 10,000 children in care and the vast majority are aboriginal. The province seizes an average of one newborn baby a day.
Child welfare has been under scrutiny for years for housing children in hotels and for allowing some teens to languish in jail because of a shortage of appropriate foster-care spots.
Manitoba can't continue taking aboriginal children away from their parents and putting the onus on them to prove they are fit, Morgan said. The province is focusing too much on housing apprehended children rather than trying to keep families together, she suggested.
"Government has put forward all these different initiatives over the last six years, but none of those initiatives are about returning children home," she said. "We need a complete overhaul of the way things are being done."
Lee-Anne Kent is fasting with Morgan. The community development worker recently moved home to the Brokenhead First Nation, just north of Winnipeg, to raise her six-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
Although she has a licence to use medicinal marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder, questions arose about whether she was dealing drugs, she said.
In July, she dropped her children off for a sleepover at their grandmother's house. The next day, she said, they were in foster care. No social worker ever visited her house, saw her organic garden or asked her about the allegations, Kent said.
She has to take addictions counselling and a parenting course before she can bring her children home again.
"I only get access to my children, (who) I've never been apart from, once a week for three hours," she said, tears welling up in her eyes. "It's a broken system with abusive workers that aren't even qualified.
"How much longer and how many more children are going to be hurt before we actually start to address the issues of the broken system?"
Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross sat down with the group Monday night and listened to their concerns. The government is bolstering prevention programs to reduce the number of apprehensions, she said.
Irvin-Ross said the province only apprehends kids as a last resort.
"There are standards in place and clear expectations that the professionals ... must follow before they make that decision," she said.
"We have a responsibility to make sure that we're not disrupting the bond and making sure those decisions are based on what is in the best interests of that child and ensuring their safety."