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All in the Family: Custom Family Adoption & the Law

“It was our tradition and way of life to accept others as our own. When there was an orphan, the orphan was taken and had parents. We learned to share that humble house where bannock and tea was our food, and that is how we lived.”

- Eva McKay, Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services.[1]

Family and community.

For many Indigenous cultures in Canada these two words are synonymous. Kinship and relationships exist as a web, extending far beyond the family one is born to. It includes family and relationships carried within teachings of wahkotowin[2], the responsibility and relationships with and to all living things—a customary law rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing.

In this system of Indigenous law exists custom family adoption, an "umbrella term that refers to the traditional cultural practices of adoption and caretaking."[3] There is no one singular, pan-Indigenous definition of what custom adoption entails, but generally, it speaks to “cultural practices of Aboriginal peoples to raise a child, by a person who is not the child’s parent, according to the custom of the First Nation and/or Aboriginal community of the child.”[4] At its core, the word custom adoption intends to "convey Indigenous alternatives to the wholesale separation of families and communities that has been perpetrated throughout colonial settler states,” specifically the child welfare system.[5]

In Canada, modern child welfare has been a contentious and often controversial institutional system (see here, here, and here). Due to ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous people through the Residential School system and 60’s scoop, “some First Nations viewed mainstream adoption as another colonial mechanism for the permanent removal of their children from community.”[6] As such, some Nations “introduced moratoriums on mainstream adoptions" and introduced their own systems, which "placed an emphasis on kinship care and traditional forms of adoption," including custom family adoption.[7]

One of the key differences between modern state adoption ideals and Indigenous worldviews within the custom family adoption framework is the valuing of extended kinship. The Canadian state “perceives the ideal family form as the heteronormative nuclear family” while in Indigenous culture, “rather than “belonging” to one set of parents, the children are connected to both their biological and adoptive parents.”[8] The core emphasis being connection to culture and the broader community, or as many of us have heard, “it takes a village.”

Custom family adoption is the legal system that illustrates practices aligned with “it takes a village." The adoption system offers a legal framework for kinship care and community care practices within the colonial system. There is hope in its ability to redress the wrongs committed by the current child welfare system through revitalizing traditional Indigenous systems of law. A system where adoption is seen not as a part of broader social shame and secrecy but as a “cultural practice, and […] the expression of an inherent right and duty to ensure the continuity of a family, clan, and spiritual traditions connected to a territory and place.”[12]

A system to bring back community, uplift family, strengthen connection, and transmit culture.

And importantly, a chance to reclaim and revitalize Indigenous laws and find ways to bring our children back to the homefire.

Until next time,

Casey & the ReconciliACTION YEG Team

[1] Darin Keewatin, “An Indigenous Perspective on Custom Adoption” (Aug 2004) online, &isAllowed=y = at 1.

[2] Matt Wildcat, “Wahkotowin in Action” (2018) 27(1) Constitutional Forum at 14.

[3] Indigenous Child Wellbeing Research Network, “Honouring Our Caretaking Traditions” (18 Nov 2011) online: ICWRN at 3-4.

[4] Forum of 23 First Nations, Métis and Aboriginal Child and Service Agencies, Directors; Columbia Representative for Children and Youth, British. A Report and Next Steps for Action from A Forum for Change: Reconciliation for Today's First Nations, Métis, and Aboriginal Children through Custom Adoption and Lifelong Family and Tribal Connections (Held in April 2015). Victoria: British Columbia Representative for Children and Youth, 2015. Canadian Electronic Library/desLibris. Absolute Page 1. Downloaded 04-01-2022 at 9.

[5] Celeste Cuthbertson, "Statutory Recognition of Indigenous Custom Adoption: Its Role in Strengthening Self-Governance Over Child Welfare," 2019 28 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 29, 2019 CanLIIDocs 2938, <>, retrieved on 2022-01-02, 36.

[6] Dr. Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, “Supporting First Nations Adoption” (7 Dec 2010) online: Submission to Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities


[7] Ibid at 2.

[8] Cuthbertson, supra note 5 at 32; Dawn Thomas-Wightman, “Moving forward: Identifying barriers and pathways to permanency for Indigenous children and youth in British Columbia through custom adoption” (15 Aug 2016) online:

Wightman_Dawn_MA_2016.pdf?sequence=1 at 20.

[9] Cuthbertson, supra note 5, at 34.

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