In Canada, Native Families Continue to be Separated

By Melody Ann Owen

Vera, an Indian residential school survivor, describes years of fear and desperation growing up. In her words, the experience left her with a “lack of communication skills and the closeness learned was not healthy.”

Residential schools were boarding schools set up by the Canadian government to remove native children from their parents and culture to assimilate them into the mainstream Canadian culture. A total of 150,000 native children attended residential school from the 1930s to 1996 when the last residential school was closed, a mere 19 years ago. Approximately 30% of all native children were subjected to the program with many of them suffering physical, verbal and sexual abuse. The federal government has paid restitution and most Canadians have closed the book on the subject.

Yet native children make up 55% of all children in foster care in British Columbia. Those numbers are staggering considering there are only 79,455 native children in this province, a mere 8% of all BC children. Currently, 63% of native children in care are cared for through native communities and service providers, up from 59.5% in September 2012, which helps but doesn’t alter that fact that too many native children are being separated from their families.

Why is it that so many native children are still being removed from their homes?

According to the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), their main concern is the child’s welfare. However, research has shown that within three months of foster care placement, children show signs of depression, aggression and withdrawal. Would it not be better to provide services in home? In 2014, the BC government spent $248 million on children in care while $6.9 million was spent on alternatives to care, and $94 million was spent on family support programs.

When our experiences as children include being taken from our families, cultural genocide, absence of parental love and care coupled with physical, psychological and sexual abuse, how do we rebuild our sense of family and community?

Add in the fact that native peoples are still invisible in society, suffer poverty, violence and inequities in opportunity which make raising healthy children even more complicated. Racism against First Nations is also rampant in Canada, with Facebook groups such as Aboriginals Need To Get A Job & Stop Using Our Tax Dollars showing ‘drunk Indians’ and spreading misinformation about federal funding for First Nations.

NOTE: This Facebook page was eventually taken down but Facebook’s first reaction to complaints was, “We reviewed the Page you reported for containing hate speech or symbols and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.”

In a toxic environment like this, how does one raise children who can go on to find their proper place in the world as independent and thriving adults? Recognizing the complexities and challenges and providing appropriate services to the entire family and community seems like a good place to start, and even better if those services are driven by the community itself.

Vera struggled as a parent in the 1980s and when her family came into contact with the Ministry. She was offered a parenting class which consisted of a textbook-like manual and some classes, which she said she “didn’t feel it was the right type of education,” nevertheless she appreciated that they were “trying to get something started.”

A spokesperson for the MCFD explained that they have no specific policies or guidelines in place to work with families who are struggling with parenting and who have a member who has been through the residential school system. In fact, there are no numbers, as residential schools are a federal jurisdiction so the province does not collect numbers or provide specific services for survivors or their families. Nevertheless, MCFD practitioners do receive some training on intergenerational trauma and on cultural competence.

The restitution and healing of residential school survivors is the responsibility of the federal government through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. However, child welfare is a provincial jurisdiction. Some services are provided to residential school survivors through Health Canada as part of a financial settlement, but none of those programs support minors who are the children and grandchildren of survivors. This, again, is not the responsibility of the federal government, though it’s at the federal level that collaboration and systemic change have the greatest potential to positively impact the lives of tribal children and families.

Melody Ann Owen wrote this story for the Journalism for Social Change massive online open course. 

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