WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Aboriginal chiefs in the Canadian province of Manitoba said on Friday they have appointed their own advocate for native children and families following the killing of a 15-year-old girl who ran away from government care.
The move by Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) is the first of its kind in Canada and highlights the mistrust between the country's long-marginalized aboriginal people and its institutions.
Earlier this week, a commission reported that Canada's decades-long, but now defunct, policy of forcibly separating aboriginal children from their families and sending them to residential schools had amounted to "cultural genocide".
The body of Tina Fontaine, 15, was found in a bag in Winnipeg's Red River in August, drawing national attention. The aboriginal girl was in the provincial government's care and had run away from a foster home. Police consider the death a homicide.
Manitoba's child welfare system also faces criticism for sometimes housing children in hotel rooms when foster and group homes are full.
The AMC hired its family and child advocate after it produced a report last year, "Bringing our Children Home", that said Manitoba's child welfare system was having a "devastating impact" on the community. The report recommended major changes.
"Right now our voices are not being heard," the newly hired advocate, Cora Morgan, said.
"We have a lot of families who are doing their best to get their children back and they're caught up in the system that misunderstands them."
Morgan said she would start by making sure families and children know their legal rights, and direct her influence to keeping children in their homes. But she said it was also important not to leave children in unsafe situations.
Aboriginals, who make up 4 percent of Canada's population, have higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, and are more often victims of violent crime, addiction and incarceration.
The chiefs hope to "deconstruct a system that works on fear and isolation," said AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.
Manitoba's left-leaning New Democratic Party government said in a statement that it would work with AMC and other native groups to improve the wellbeing of children and families. It said it plans to hire a deputy to Manitoba's children's advocate to focus on aboriginal issues.
Editing by Peter Galloway