File – 3 items | La Presse in Opitciwan | A proven model

” I am proud of myself. I’m happy. »

Debbie Chachai speaks quietly. She is still taming these words. The 40-year-old Atikamekw has just regained parental authority over his children. She has 11, 3 are adults.

She achieved this accomplishment thanks to her progress with social services in her community, since the adoption of the first Atikamekw law on youth protection.

“I never miss an appointment,” says the mother. Her husband, father of nine of her children, died a violent death six years ago. There is no doubt that Debbie has come a long way.

His daughter Saskia sits next to him. The 14-year-old girl, silent, observes her mother who has agreed to confide in The Press. On his t-shirt, several family photos are printed, including one from his parents’ wedding.

In a tender gesture, the young girl, who now lives with her mother, takes her hand. “I’m proud of her too,” she whispers.


The teenager is proud of the path her mother has taken.

A blue November light illuminates the house of Debbie’s cousin, Betty-Anne Awashish, who opened her door to us. We are in the heart of Opitciwan, in Mauricie, an isolated community, accessible only by traveling hundreds of kilometers of forest roads.

You will need to leave the area before night falls to ensure good visibility. It is also preferable to rely on a radio to announce each kilometer and anticipate the encounter of heavy goods vehicles loaded with wood in a narrow bend.

This is the daily life of the approximately 2,500 Atikamekw in the community, accustomed to spending hours to obtain health care, consult a specialist or even buy groceries. No wonder the quest for greater autonomy concerns local authorities.

Two years ago, Opitciwan became the first community in Quebec to have full control of its child protection services. The Atikamekw Council of Opitciwan adopted its own law to free itself from the Directorate of Youth Protection (DPJ).

This step towards self-determination was made possible under the young federal law C-92, which recognizes the jurisdictions of First Nations in matters of child and family services.

The Legault government contests its constitutionality since it encroaches on its jurisdiction, according to him.

After having been partially rejected before the Court of Appeal, the Attorney General of Quebec addressed the Supreme Court in March. The country’s highest court is expected to decide the issue in early 2024.

And through the band, decide on the future of the Atikamekw model (see other text).

“It worries us all,” admits the director of Atikamekw social protection, Nadine Petiquay, met at her offices.

Because the Atikamekw social protection law from Opitciwan (LPSAO) is already showing results: the placement rate has fallen by almost 10% only among 0-4 year olds, since 2022. There has also been “almost no” placement outside the community.

The children are 100% in Atikamekw host families, where they can speak their mother tongue and maintain their culture, explains Petiquay. This rate was around 60% before the LPSAO came into force. “The children feel more listened to, more respected,” she relates.


Nadine Petiquay, director of Atikamekw social protection in Opitciwan

The interests of the child and the maintenance of Atikamekw culture. These were mainly our points of reference (during the development of the law).

Nadine Petiquay, director of Atikamekw social protection in Opitciwan

At least a hundred cases were also diverted after their repatriation under local law. The new model does not provide for recourse to court. If the parents refuse to collaborate, the matter is referred to the Atikamekw arbitration council. It hasn’t happened yet.

“People are less reluctant, less fearful than before because we were seen as the DPJ. We were under his direction. We had to apply what the CIUSSS said, sometimes it was confusing,” recalls Petiquay.

Child protection in Opitciwan in figures


Number of Atikamekw children covered by the LPSAO


Number of Opitciwan child protection services employees, 37 of whom are Indigenous


Number of indigenous host families, including 20 in urban areas

Source: Atikamekw Council of Opitciwan

Family time


Debbie’s cousin, Betty-Anne Awashish (right), looks after one of her daughters.

In Debbie’s case, none of her children are anymore under the protection of the DPJ. Atikamekw social protection now takes care of five of them. She can see them much more often, she says. One of her daughters has also been living with her cousin for several years.

“With the former DPJ, there was no contact unless it was planned according to a schedule,” relates Betty-Anne. With the Atikamekw law, it’s easier to have visits and even “sleeps” at home, adds Debbie, seated at the kitchen table.

This helped her in her recovery.

The approach is indeed different, assures Nadine Petiquay. Prohibitions on contact “do not exist” in Aboriginal law, with rare exceptions.

“We see the difference. Families are more motivated,” she assures.

In the case of sexual abuse, the director of social protection maintains in the Atikamekw law the responsibility to apply “the multisectoral agreement for children victims of sexual abuse, physical mistreatment or lack of care threatening their state of physical health” of the Quebec government, which notably provides for police investigation mechanisms.

We will also try to move the child into the extended family, rather than completely uprooting him, explains Petiquay. “We have already had a few cases and we have been able to keep the child in his environment, either with a parent, an uncle or an aunt. With all that, they know that we are there with them throughout the (investigation) process,” she emphasizes. We ensure the presence of an interpreter and also accompany loved ones.


Lisa Ellington, researcher and assistant professor at the School of Social Work and Criminology at Laval University

Lisa Ellington, researcher and assistant professor at the School of Social Work and Criminology at Laval University, has been documenting the repercussions of the LPSAO since it came into force in January 2022.

“The law is based on the involvement and active participation of families and allows the child to express his point of view,” she says. “Safety is important, there will be no contact if the child is in danger, but if this is not the case, everything will be put in place to ensure that relationships continue,” adds the researcher. .

According to her, one of the “great strengths of the model” is to have centralized requests for intervention in a single window.

Thus, a parent who needs help will go through the same place as a loved one who would like to make a report. Moreover, the notion of “report” has been replaced by that of “service request”. The file will then progress towards prevention or protection (see other text).

One in two requests for help (52%) is now directed towards prevention services, for example when a parent is in a situation of domestic violence, abuse or if they are experiencing mental health or overconsumption problems.

Before the Atikamekw law came into force, these reasons considered “risk of negligence” accounted for more than a quarter (27%) of reports to the DPJ.

“In the medium or long term, I have the impression that there will probably be fewer and fewer situations reported, but perhaps more and more requests for help from preventive services because they will be better known, people are less suspicious,” estimates Mme Ellington.

Grounds for intervention since the entry into force of the Atikamekw law

  • Serious neglect (when the child does not receive the care necessary for their physical and mental health): 28%
  • Sexual assault: 22%
  • Youth behavior problems: 15%

Source: Atikamekw Council of Opitciwan

“Around the child”


Maxime Dubé is a prevention worker.

Maxime Dubé is a prevention worker. For two years, he has said he has noticed the positive effects of the new law.

“It’s always been the same. (The DPJ) did not take the environment into account. It was only the parents and we completely ignored the family environment, which nevertheless has an important role,” he illustrates.

“Now it’s based on the family unit. We take into account what grandparents can provide. They know their history, the problems, they intervene. They are there,” he explains.

Customary adoption is also included in the new law. This practice specific to First Nations has also been recognized in the Civil Code of Quebec since 2018.

Mr. Dubé points out that due to the isolated nature of the community, its population still speaks a lot of Atikamekw. “(Parents) when they are caught speaking in French, they search for their words. And when they talk about something stressful, they are more fluid in Atikamekw,” relates the speaker. He also sees effects on the child: “Since we are Atikamekw, it puts him at ease,” he says.

One of the particularities of the model is the involvement in decision-making of a “family council”, made up of people significant to the child. “We bring people together around the child,” illustrates Nadine Petiquay. “If the parent needs a break, we can find in the family (someone to take in the children) without there being any question of placement of the child,” adds the director of Atikamekw social protection.

Hope for the future


Struggling with addiction issues, Debbie Chachai has now been sober for three years.

Back in Betty-Anne’s house. Debbie pours herself a hot coffee. “My new drug,” she jokes.

“I have been sober for three years,” the Atikamekw then explains. Debbie still remembers the day the DPJ entered her life, around fifteen years ago. She and her late husband struggled with substance abuse issues. A tortuous path followed.

Recently, the horizon has brightened. She hands us a letter received the same day. This is a response from the Atikamekw Council of Opitciwan informing him that his housing request is under review. “It’s the first time, before it was a refusal,” she confides.

Today, she speaks “to tell others to keep hope.” And for the future, she wants “a bigger house” to accommodate her 11 children.


The Atikamekw community of Opitciwan has just over 3,200 members.

Opitciwan in figures

Population: 3,216 members, including 621 off-reserve residents*

*Number adjusted to account for under-registration of young children. Data provided by the Atikamekw Council of Opitciwan, 2018.

Median age: 22 years

35% of the population is aged 0 to 14.

61% of the population is aged 15 to 64

4% of the population is aged 65 and over

Active population (over 15 years): 43.4%

6.3 people on average per accommodation

From 80 to 100 people are “permanently” on a waiting list to have access to new housing

Sources: Statistics Canada (2016) and Conseil des Atikamekw d’Opitciwan (2018)


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