Recent legislative action addressing the severely adverse outcomes that First Nations children face in Canada’s child welfare system has led to a national discussion.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Human Rights Commission issued a decision against the government in a 2007 lawsuit filed by the First Nations and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations. The tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminated against tens of thousands of vulnerable First Nations children by providing less money for welfare services on reserves – referred to as reservations in the U.S. – than elsewhere in Canada.
The ruling has captured the nation’s spotlight because of Canada’s troubled past with Aboriginal peoples, and its urgency is heightened by the disproportionate overrepresentation of First Nations children in the Canadian child welfare system.
“Aboriginal peoples” is a collective name for the native inhabitants of North America and their descendants. Canadian law recognizes three groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians, commonly referred to as First Nations people, Métis and Inuit.
Nearly half of the 30,000 children and youth in foster care across Canada are Aboriginal children, even though Aboriginal peoples account for only 4.3 percent of the Canadian population.
“In the U.S., African American kids are overrepresented. In Canada, its First Nations children,” said Josh Kroll, a project coordinator with the Northern American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC). NACAC promotes and supports permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. and Canada.
While the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children clearly exists, comparing the rates of Aboriginal children in foster care across the country is challenging because the population rates, economic conditions and community supports vary in each province.
“There is overrepresentation in each province but it is different,” Kroll said. The percentage of Aboriginal children in child welfare systems reaches 60 percent to 78 percent in some provinces and territories.
While Canadian policy acknowledges cultural differences between mainstream society and Aboriginal culture, these tensions have escalated to legal action.
“With the Inuit populations in Canada, there are profound challenges,” said Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in the U.S. and Canada. The Dave Thomas Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding permanent homes for children in foster care.
Historically, Canada has had a challenging relationship with First Nations people. Many struggles relating to child welfare in Aboriginal communities are perpetuated by poverty, community isolation and a lack of social services. An inaugural First Nations summit led by the Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs will be held in fall 2016 to address these issues.
In the recently ruled upon lawsuit, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations and Family Caring Society, argued that the support the federal government provides for child welfare on reserves is significantly lower than the support provincial governments give to children off reserves.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal began hearings for the case in 2013, and on January 26 of this year ruled that the underfunding was discriminatory, leading to a major refocusing of Canadian child welfare policy. The government’s own documents say the underfunding for welfare on reserves ranges between 22 and 34 percent.
The ruling confirming the discrimination will require hundreds of millions in financial reparations to First Nation communities and secure child welfare as a top policy priority. Political agendas have shifted, and now the question is, “Who should be running child welfare for First Nation people in Canada?” said Irwin Elman, Ontario’s provincial advocate of child welfare.
Each Canadian province and territory has its own child welfare policies and legislation in place, making blanket national policies challenging to enact or enforce.
Ontario, for example, has 48 different agencies that deliver child protection services. Six of the 48 are First Nations-designated agencies, and are run by First Nations people. This allows these agencies to have some leniency to practice child welfare in a way they say is more culturally appropriate for their community.
Aboriginal child welfare agencies work in various ways, with some being fully delegated agencies authorized under provincial child welfare laws to provide a full range of services, while others are non-delegated agencies with voluntary mandates to provide services to Aboriginal people.
However, children who enter the child welfare system have to go through the provincial legal system, regardless of whether they reach the system through a First Nations or other agency.
First Nations legal operations must adhere to Canadian law, but First Nations leaders want to reclaim control of their children. Elman said these communities are exerting the sentiment that “we should determine our services and how we protect our kids.”
In the future, First Nation communities might have their own court system for dealing with child welfare issues, as opposed to going through the traditional Canadian system.
“There is a sense of urgency for First Nation people as their children are being put into a colonial system that isn’t working for any child, let alone for First Nation kids,” Elman said.
One of the emergent themes from recent discussions is the potential movement towards a “nation-to-nation discussion, as in the First Nation people to Canada discussion,” Elman said.
Although two separate welfare systems have never been tried before, “the government is open to exploring that,” Elman said.
Despite an overall anxiety about what to do, this issue is “the number one priority, and a priority at every level in government,” Elman said. “It is a huge question with heavy context.”
Besides the tribunal ruling there have been other efforts on behalf of the indigenous population, but many “believe those kids have gotten the short end of the stick,” Soronen said.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report released by the federal government mid-2015 highlighted a “policy of cultural genocide” within Canadian borders. The report described Canada’s residential schools as “part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”
The residential school policy removed indigenous children from their homes in attempts to assimilate them into Canadian society. The policy resulted in countless deprivations and abuses inflicted on thousands of children, as well as the loss of language, community cohesion and cultural knowledge and skills.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report uncovered publicly that there is a lot of damage that has been done to three-to-four generations of First Nation people in our country,” Elman said.
In the report, “Voices for Change,” Graff said there is “something wrong” with the child welfare system.
The report also outlines many systemic problems that contribute to the high numbers of indigenous children in the system. Graff said many reports have documented how Aboriginal people have been underserved by child welfare systems, but despite recent calls to action the situation has “actually gotten worse.”
While the obstacles facing First Nations children are not new, a perfect storm of events has launched child welfare to the forefront.
“There’s a revolution going on in Canada about Aboriginal child welfare,” Elman said.