As of 2016, Indigenous children make up over 50% of Canada’s foster care system, despite the fact Indigenous people represent only 4.9% of Canada’s total population. Read that again. Read it as many times as you need to for it to sink in. This is a real statistic. This is the reality for Indigenous children in Canada and we are not talking about it.
You might wonder why this is such a bad thing, and that’s totally reasonable. If the children are in foster care, doesn’t that mean they’ve been taken away from bad situations? Doesn’t it mean they’re being cared for? The short answer is no.
It would be different if this was a system that led them to better living situations, or kept them in touch with their culture, but that isn’t the case. For example, in Manitoba, the foster care system has led more than one Indigenous child to a premature death. Tina Fontaine, for example, was fifteen years old when her body was pulled from the Red River. Investigation into her death revealed that Family and Children’s Services workers had been placing children in hotels. She went missing several times while in the care of CFS workers, who claimed “they had no way to physically keep the teen in the hotel.” The investigation also uncovered that these workers are largely departmental instead of contractual. This—while being a “fantastic” way for the government to save money—also means that those employees will not have had as much training, and in some cases, they did not have child-abuse registry and criminal-records checks.
It’s not only that children are dying. It’s that they’re being removed from their families and their culture in the first place. Is it necessary? According to Canada’s minister of Indigenous services: “We see that there’s discrimination against indigenous kids, where they are apprehended from their homes for reasons like poverty, or lack of adequate housing or food."
This problem directly parallels the Sixties Scoop, which took place in Canada as early as the 1950s through to the 80s. Some changes to the Indian Act in 1951 basically gave the Canadian government jurisdiction over the welfare of Indigenous children. They saw that Indigenous families were poorer and had mental health issues—many of which were symptoms as a result of trauma caused by residential schools—and decided the best way to fix it was to take their children away. Research suggests that over 20,000 Indigenous children were adopted in that time. Typically, they were placed with non-Indigenous families; some were sent abroad, some to the States. The scoop led to the loss of culture for Indigenous children, especially during a time where it was still shameful to identify as Indigenous; many didn’t even know their true identity growing up.
There’s a really important interview done by The Discourse where an Indigenous mother discusses her relationship with the foster care system, and how her children were removed from her care. She was informed—sometimes days after the incidents occurred—that two of her daughters attempted suicide while in the foster care system. One was fourteen years old, the other only eight. This is demonstrative of the emotional trauma it causes children to be removed from their families, from parents who are trying to look after children while still suffering from their own experiences as Indigenous people in a country that does not recognize their rights.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the sixties scoop ‘cultural genocide’. I can’t help but wonder if, in a number of years, this overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canada’s foster care system will be acknowledged the same way.
So what can be done? I don’t necessarily have the answers here, and that’s hard. All I can really do is present the facts, maybe make a couple of suggestions. Here’s what we know:
There are children being unnecessarily removed from their homes. The system they are placed in isn’t working. In some cases, children are dying. I would be very interested to see some numbers on that. So far, it doesn’t seem like anyone is counting.
Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs is calling the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care a ‘humanitarian crisis’, but not many people actually know what’s going on. I think one of the best things we can do is bring attention to the issue. Talk about it, educate ourselves on what’s going on.
Another suggestion is to allow Indigenous communities to care for their own children. Wild concept. In the 1990s, the federal government gave some bands the ability to control their own child welfare. I think that keeping Indigenous children surrounded by their culture is important.
As a country, we should have learned by now that taking children away only causes trauma for them and their families. It’s frightening to think that people believe issues like Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop are in the past when they aren’t. We need to focus on what an be done to stop this from happening now and in the future.
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