Piker Press Banner
May 13, 2024

A First Nations Perspective 16

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

The Role of Race and Policy
In the Aboriginal Child Welfare System
In Canada

For thousands of years, First Nations communities in Canada have had their own systems of caring for children when their parents were unable to do so. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans (or colonization as it is widely known) Aboriginal families and communities cared for their children in accordance with their cultural practices, laws and traditions. The existence and continuity of customary care traditions in Canada have been documented in a number of court cases, as well as in research, which, for example, provides and demonstrates that First Nations communities rely on grandparents and extended family as primary caregivers of children more than any other cultural group in Canada. This paper will look at the evolution of how First Nations communities moved from having their own systems of care for their children, to how the government's assimilationist policies took the care and control away from them through the residential school system, and the Sixties Scoop program, and how ultimately settler colonialism has played a major role in how First Nations people are perceived as dysfunctional today.

The book Stolen From Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities, written by Suzanne Fournier and Ernie Crey (1997) affirms "all aboriginal cultures teach that children are special gifts lent by the spirit world; if they are not loved and cherished, they may flee back to the realm from which they came." (81) One residential school survivor, Willie Blackwater from the Fournier, Crey book recalls how his grandparents, James and Mary Blackwater raised him. He states:

"My grandparents gave me a true education, in the land, in survival, in values. They were really traditional people. My grandfather took me fishing, hunting and trapping with him, teaching me about the land and animals. My grandmother always had a big garden and picked berries, and they preserved everything for the winter.

My grandparents taught me and corrected me without ever raising their hand or voice to me. If I did something wrong, my grandfather would tell me a long story and I had to figure out for myself its meaning and what it told me about what I had done.

My grandmother had her own traditional spirituality but she also brought me to the United Church. She was always teaching. She'd cook wonderful things and tell me why it was so important to have respect for everything on earth that feeds us." (66)

With the arrival of European settlers and the subsequent imposition of colonial policies traditional systems of care were disrupted by the imposition of state practices that resulted in the removal of tens of thousands of Aboriginal children from their homes. This is where residential schooling, and the Sixties Scoop were put into practice by the federal government.

Historically, "Even before Confederation, the Canadian government adopted a policy of assimilation (actually, it was the continuation of a policy that British colonial officials had pursued since 1713). The long-term goal was to bring the Native peoples from their 'savage and unproductive state' and force (English style) civilization upon them, thus making Canada a homogeneous society in the Anglo-Saxon and Christian tradition." (Paul, 1) In the article "The Structure of Aboriginal Child Welfare in Canada" written by Vandha Sinha and Anna Kozlowski; they too speak about the historical context of Aboriginal child welfare in Canada, stating that "starting in 1879, the Canadian government systematically separated Aboriginal children from their families, placing them in residential schools in order to assimilate them into colonial culture" (1).Residential schooling as legislated by the federal government, with the church being the delivery agent, served, as the initial mechanism for state-sponsored Aboriginal child welfare.

The influence of settler society and governance played a huge factor in how Aboriginal people in the early twentieth century were dealt with, specifically when it came to the conditions in which Aboriginal peoples were situated within the residential school system, and then moved onto reserve land. It was in 1920, under Deputy Minister Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott's direction, that it became mandatory for all native children between the ages of seven and fifteen to attend one of Canada's Residential Schools. Scott famously said during his tenure as head of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1920, "I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone ... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill." (Paul, 1)

Further to Scott's position, in the article "A Scandalous Procession: Residential Schooling and the Re/formation of Aboriginal Bodies, 1900-1950," written by Mary-Ellen Kelm (1996), she states " a major function of the residential schools; according to Frank Pedley, deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1902, was the 'removal of pupils from the retrogressive influence of home life.'" (55). She continues, "Central to this view was the notion that Aboriginal parents were negligent parents and especially that unassimilated Native women made poor mothers. Advocates of residential schools frequently failed to recognize that Aboriginal parents were, in many cases, simply doing the best they could under impoverished conditions; conditions that were due, in fact, to the impact of governmental decisions and the influence of settler society." (56) According to Kelm "the schools themselves offered scant salvation from physical illness and disease. In fact, rather than preserving the bodies of the children who were entrusted to their care, the residential schools tended to endanger through exposure to disease, overwork, underfeeding and various forms of abuse." (52)

"The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Volume One: Summary Honouring the Truth and Reconciling for the Future" (2015) states "Residential schools are a tragic part of Canada's history. But they cannot simply be consigned to history. The legacy from the schools and the political and legal policies and mechanisms surrounding their history continue to this day. This is reflected in the significant educational, income, health, and social disparities between Aboriginal people and other Canadians. It is reflected in the intense racism some people harbour against Aboriginal people and in the systemic and other forms of discrimination Aboriginal people regularly experience in this country. It is reflected too in the critically endangered status of most Aboriginal languages." (TRC, 135) The Report goes on to state that "current conditions such as the disproportionate apprehension of Aboriginal children by child welfare agencies and the disproportionate imprisonment and victimization of Aboriginal people can be explained in part as result or legacy of the way that Aboriginal children were treated in residential schools and were denied an environment of positive parenting; worthy community leaders, and a positive sense of identity and self worth." (136)

It is sad to note that the impacts of the legacy of residential schools have not ended with only those who attended the schools. The impacts have affected the survivor's partners, their children, their grandchildren, their extended families and their communities. The residential school system applied a deliberate assault on the Aboriginal family; often blaming the mother for the reasons children lived in poverty or were abused and neglected. On allocated reserve lands, Aboriginal peoples struggled with overcrowding, and accessing clean water amongst other things necessary for their survival.

More recently, "some DIA (Department of Indian Affairs) and church officials recognized that their own policies and the prejudices of local settlers were to blame for the poor conditions on some reserves," and "yet for the most part, residential school advocates did not partake of such liberalizing attitudes and as high infant and childhood mortality rates on reserves became known in the twentieth century, they continued to blame them on what they saw as the poor skills of Aboriginal mothers who refused to give up the supposedly unsanitary ways of the past." (Kelm, 1996, 58) Accordingly in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Summary (2015) " children who were abused in the schools sometimes grew up to abuse others. Many students who spoke to the Commission said they developed addictions as a means of coping, and students who were treated and punished like prisoners in the schools often graduated to real prisons." (136)

Eurocentric provincial child welfare laws in the 1950s began to "emphasize the safety and well being of the child as paramount consideration whilst assuming parents could, with available support, ensure the safety of their children. Child welfare laws for First Nations children changed, and so did policies for the non-Aboriginal sector of society. Though the provincial approach of making children's safety a number one consideration is reasonable, there is however, a significant difference between non- Aboriginal and Aboriginal peoples and how they are as a group dealt with in regards to the child welfare system. For Aboriginal people, this extended not only to the residential school system but continued with the Sixties Scoop, and is prevalent in child welfare practices today.

"The Sixties Scoop was a wide scale national apprehension of Aboriginal children by child welfare agencies. Child welfare authorities removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their families and communities and placed them in non-Aboriginal homes without taking steps to preserve their culture or identity. Children were placed in homes across Canada, in the United States, and even overseas. This practice actually extended well beyond the 1960s, until at least the mid to late 1980s. (138).

In the article "The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations Child Welfare: Why if Canada wins, equality and justice lose," written by Cindy Blackstock "there are more First Nations children in child welfare care today than ever before and the over-representation of First Nations is unrelenting and staggering." (Blackstock, 2003; Assembly of First Nations, 2007) It is stated that "overall, the estimated 27,000 First Nations children in child welfare account for 30 to 40% of all children in child welfare care even though they represent less than 5% of the child population." (Blackstock &Trocme) According to the article by Sinha, V and Kozolowski A, the authors state that "this over-representation is driven primarily by cases involving child neglect," which is linked to historic trauma whose factors include poverty, poor housing, domestic violence, substance abuse, and residential school.

The reasoning for this over-representation also goes a lot deeper. We have to consider many other factors that play a role in why so many First Nations children are under child welfare care. One factor that plays a more systemic role in Aboriginal child welfare laws is entrenched in the Indian Act. The introduction of Section 88 in 1951 made "all laws of general application from time to time in force in any province applicable to and in respect of Indians in the province." (Indian Act; 1985 section 88) This, according Sinha and Kozolowski was interpreted as meaning that, for the first time, provincial or territorial child welfare legislation applied on reserve. Provinces and territories initially provided on reserve services in extreme emergencies but changes in the Act expanded their efforts upon allocation of federal funds to support provincial and territorial delivery.

The article further states that "Canada has a decentralized child welfare system in which over 300 provincial and territorial child welfare agencies operate under the jurisdictions of 13 Canadian provinces and territories "(Trocme et al. 2010). In addition there were 121 Metis, First Nations and urban Aboriginal child and family service agencies either in operation or proceeding with provincially or federally recognized planning processes as of 2011. Of these, 84 agencies have signed agreements with provincial governments affirming their rights to apply provincial child welfare legislation and to provide the full range of child protection services, including child welfare investigations (but excluding adoption services for most agencies). The remaining agencies assumed a more limited range of responsibilities under provincial or territorial child welfare legislation." (4) There are currently no comprehensive estimates of the proportion of the Aboriginal population served by Aboriginally governed agencies. However the Auditor General (2008) estimated that First Nations agencies provide at least partial services to about 442 of 606 First Nations groups. Finally it is estimated that 50% of the Aboriginal population lives in urban areas (Statistics Canada 2009), and Aboriginally governed agencies now serve the large Aboriginal populations of Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg, as well as several smaller urban communities. (4)

All provincial and territorial child welfare systems share certain basic goals and characteristics but they vary considerably in terms of their organization of service delivery systems, child welfare statutes, assessment tools, competency based training programs, and other factors. What is interesting however is that variation in services for Aboriginal children is even more pronounced, diverse and more complicated. There are five models of service delivery, provincial or territorial model, delegated or mandated model, integrated model, band by law model, and the tripartite model. First Nations agencies typically use the provincial or territorial model, where the province or territory is responsible for service provision, lawmaking, governance, and funding for off reserve families. However, funding for on reserve services is provided by the federal government.

The residential school system was slowly phased out during the second half of the 20th century and responsibility for Aboriginal child welfare shifted from the school system to the mainstream child welfare system. This started and created conditions that rendered First Nations vulnerable to the next wave of intervention-child abductions sanctioned by both the federal and provincial child welfare laws.

It was here that according to Fournier and Crey that "it was in the foster and adoptive care system that Aboriginal children typically vanished with scarcely a trace, the vast majority of them placed until they were adults in non-Aboriginal homes where their cultural identity, their legal Indian status, their knowledge of their own First Nation and even their birth names were erased, often forever." This is what happened to me, and countless other First Nations children.

As a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, I've been lucky enough, after many years of estrangement from my adoptive family to be able to find my birth mother and her family and return home on a yearly basis where I have begun to learn my family background and history, little by little. I still have a long way to go, as far as reconciling with my past and what happened to me. Sadly, this is not the case for many First Nations children that were adopted out. Some First Nations children are still searching for their birth families and face feelings of discouragement and displacement, and have identity issues.

This feeling of displacement is nothing new to First Nations peoples; we have dealt with this since contact with the settlers. Displacement has come in many forms -- land dispossession, relocation of communities, removal and separation of families, loss of language and historic trauma. Statistical data indicates clearly that the situation for First Nations children in Canada is bleak. What is most discerning is that "the First Nations population in the western provinces is larger, and the over-representation of children in care is also greater. Thirty-nine percent of the children in care in British Columbia are First Nations children; the figures are 44 percent in Alberta, 51.5 percent in Saskatchewan and 60 percent in Manitoba." (Hepworth 1980: 112) In contrast, the First Nations population of Canada is approximately 3.5 percent of the total population. First Nations children are clearly over-represented within the child welfare system. There are no indications that the situation is improving.

There are many instances in which the Euro-centric child welfare system has done more harm than good. This brings me to two articles, first, "A Vicious Circle: Child Welfare and the First Nations," written by Patricia Monture-Angus (1989) where we are given an example of where the child welfare system failed a young man. Monture-Angus brings up the case of Cameron Kerley. At the age of nineteen, Cameron Kerley brutally murdered his adoptive father, following years of sexual abuse. The child welfare systems of both Canada and the United States had clearly failed this First Nations child. Before he was taken into 'care' by child welfare officials, and before he was placed for adoption in the United States, Canadian social workers took no preventative measures to keep Cameron with members of his own extended family-and "after he was placed in the United States, no social workers assessed his placement nor the suitability of his adoptive father nor completed a progress summary of Cameron's adoptive home despite a marked decline in his school achievements." (191) No one in authority ever questioned the placement of a Cree child who resided in Canada across an international border-until a man was dead. The judge and lawyers who participated in his trial never got to the bottom of the matter. They never knew about the sexual abuse or the frustration of being an "Indian" in a foreign environment (191)

A problem that exists in the child welfare system is not only with apprehension, but also the placement of First Nations children in non-Native homes. Monture-Angus affirms "Not only are First Nations children more likely to be apprehended but, once they are taken into care, they are less likely to be either returned to their parents or placed for adoption. If a First Nations child is placed for adoption or placed in a foster home, it is unlikely that such a home will be a First Nations home. Only 22 percent of such placements are with First Nations." (Johnson 1982:176)

Furthermore, the historical failure of legislative bodies and the courts to protect or respect the cultural identity of First Nations children has been identified in the literature as a disregard of the 'indigenous factor.' The unique character of First Nations children as members of a specific class is under-emphasized, undervalued or ignored in child welfare matters. As a result of this and other factors I have mentioned, the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children persists despite legislative and structural changes intended to reduce the number of Aboriginal children in care.

Monture-Angus asks an important question: "When social institutions and legal processes fail, where do we place the responsibility?" This is only the first question that must be asked about the Cameron Kerley case. Who stops to ask how many other First Nations children there are like Cameron Kerley?

The "Indigenous factor' is also important to consider in the overrepresentation of First Nations children in the child welfare system. Monture-Angus states, "The disregard of the 'indigenous factor' within the Canadian child welfare system is merely a reflection of the position of First Nations children within Canadian society. The pressure to assimilate (i.e. to disregard the importance of the "indigenous factor" in your own life) is immense." This places tremendous psychological burdens on First Nations children, families and communities. First Nations communities believe that their future and the survival of the traditional ways depend on children. When children of original ancestry are removed from their homes and communities:

The traditional circle of life is broken. This leads to a breakdown of the family, community and breaks the bonds of love between the parent and the child. To constructively set out to break the Circle of Life is destructive and is literally destroying Native communities and Native cultures. (Hill 1983: 55)

Monture-Angus also states "the failure to recognize the importance of the 'Indigenous factor' is not limited to the child welfare system and the corresponding legal decisions. The 'Indigenous factor' is ignored throughout the judicial system in matters that involve First Nations people or issues." First Nations people are also over-represented within the criminal justice process. This is noted in the work of Sherene H Razack in "Dying From Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody," (2015) where she states "I consider what is perhaps the most iconic of Indigenous deaths in custody: freezing deaths. The bodies of Indigenous men found frozen to death on the outskirts of the city of Saskatoon, all of whom had documented encounters with police shortly before their deaths, raise the spectre of extreme police misconduct, if not manslaughter and murder. Deaths that earned Canada the condemnation of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, freezing deaths reveal at a glance the racial/spatial economies of the colonial city." (24)

Furthermore, Razack's book addresses the settler colonial theory of Indigenous people, and how they are seen in settler society. It may be harsh, but the truth is not only are Indigenous children seen as bodies that do not matter, but through "the emplacement on stolen land, settlers must repeatedly enact the most enduring colonial truth: the land belongs to the settler, and Indigenous people who are in the city are not of the city. Marked as surplus and subjected to repeated evictions, Indigenous people are considered by settler society as the waste or excess that must be expelled." (24)

In the article by Cindy Blackstock, (2011) we are privy to the case of First Nations organizations in Canada filing a human rights complaint alleging that the Government of Canada is discriminating against First Nations children on the basis of race and national ethnic origins when it comes to the current treatment of over 160,000 First Nations children resident on reserve. It was on February 26, 2007 that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), a political organization representing all First Nations in Canada and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, a national non-profit organization providing services to First Nations child welfare organizations, took the historic step of holding Canada accountable before the Canadian Human Rights Commission for its current treatment of over 160,000 First Nations children residents on reserve. The complaint alleges "the Government of Canada discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by providing them with less government child welfare funding, and therefore benefit, than other children in Canada." (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, 2009)

According to Sinha and Kozolowski, "Concern over the scale of child removal and the treatment of Aboriginal children by provincial and territorial child welfare authorities laid the groundwork for First Nations groups to develop federally funded child welfare agencies which provided services on-reserve (Auditor General of Canada, 2008) Some First Nations groups pioneered efforts to operate their own agencies in the 1960s and 1970s; the number of First Nations agencies grew from 4 in 1981 to 30 in 1986 (Armitage, 1995) before a federal moratorium on the recognition of new agencies was imposed." (4) In 1991, the moratorium was lifted when a national funding formula and a program manual for First Nations child welfare agencies were introduced. Though both placed greater constraints on First Nations child welfare agencies and required them to comply with provincial standards and introduced strict control on funding, the number of First Nations child welfare agencies and the scope of their responsibilities have continued to expand. "While First Nations agencies initially served only on reserve populations, they now increasingly serve off reserve populations as well. In addition to First Nations agencies, there are now multiple agencies serving Metis children and families and pan Aboriginal populations in urban areas (urban Aboriginal agencies). (Sinha, Kozowlski, 4)

In an article by Barker, Alfred and Kerr (2014) "Canada's decentralized governance and split jurisdictions make reform of child welfare problematic. The Constitution of Canada assigns provincial and territorial governments control and responsibility over child welfare as well as funding for off-reserve programs, whereas the federal government is responsible for funding on-reserve programs." (CMAJ October 7, 2014, 186 (14) This results in inconsistent policies and practices, and fragmented data across the country, which makes it difficult to track trends and outcomes for children and youth exposed to the child welfare system.

So, what can we do today about this overrepresentation of First Nations children in the child welfare system? The issue is a complex one, and many issues need to be addressed in order to fix the First Nations child welfare system. Race and policy are clearly two of the issues that need to be addressed when it comes to the overrepresentation of First Nations children in child welfare. Other factors that can be included are the implementation of anti-oppression and anti-racism work that is designed to close the gap of inequality between First Nations children and non-Aboriginal children in child welfare care.

Aboriginal activists and agencies have repeatedly called for a paradigm shift from intervention to prevention, and initiatives to accomplish this have produced mixed results. Some of the needs required for a better child welfare system include "the establishment of a national steering committee tasked with monitoring national trends for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth exposed to the child welfare system. This data would allow researchers and policy makers to more effectively identify areas where intervention is needed. Comprehensive and longitudinal research to identify the factors driving the high prevalence of neglect charges among Aboriginal families (eg, programs targeting poverty, inadequate housing, substance misuse) is needed, and Aboriginal researchers have called for service programming and delivery cultivated by Aboriginal people as key to successful programming." (TRC, 139)

In a call to action, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has suggested that

  1. "we call upon the federal, provincial, territorial and Aboriginal communities to commit to reducing the number of Aboriginal children in care by:
    • i. Monitoring and assessing neglect investigations
    • ii. Providing adequate resources to enable Aboriginal communities and child welfare organizations to keep Aboriginal families together where it is safe to do so, and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments, regardless of where they reside.
    • iii. Ensuring that social workers and others who conduct child welfare investigations are properly educated and trained about the history and impacts of residential schools
    • iv. Ensuring that social workers and other who conduct child welfare investigations are properly educated and trained about the potential for Aboriginal communities and families to provide more appropriate solutions to family healing
    • v. Requiring that all child welfare decision makers consider the impact of the residential school experience on children and their caregivers. Better research and data are also required in order to monitor and develop strategies to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in care.
  2. We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and territories to prepare and publish annual reports on the number of Aboriginal children ( First Nations, Inuit and Metis) who are in care, compared with non-Aboriginal children, as well as the reasons for apprehension, the total spending on preventive and care services by child welfare agencies, and the effectiveness of various interventions."

In conclusion, for thousands of years, First Nations communities in Canada have had their own systems of caring for children when their parents were unable to do so. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans (or colonization as it is widely known) Aboriginal families and communities cared for their children in accordance with their cultural practices, laws and traditions, and we must be able to return to those ways without retribution from non-Aboriginal peoples.

Reconciliation between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal peoples is one way but first it is necessary to resolve the ongoing conflicts between Aboriginal peoples and institutions of the country and its peoples. No Canadian can take pride in this country's treatment of Aboriginal peoples and for that reason alone, all Canadians need to play a critical role in advancing reconciliation in a way that honours and revitalizes the nation-to nation Treaty relationship.

Works Cited:

Barker, Brittany BA; Alfred, Gerald Taiaiake, PhD; Kerr, Thomas. "An Uncaring State? The Overrepresentation of First Nations Children in the Canadian child welfare system" Canadian Medical Association, October 7, 2014 186 (14)

Blackstock, Cindy. "Residential Schools: Did They Really Close or Just Morph into Child Welfare?" November 17, 2014 Indigenous Law Journal/Volume 6/ Issue 1/2007 73-75

Blackstock, Cindy. "The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on First Nations Child Welfare: Why if Canada wins, equality and justice lose." Children and Youth Services Review Review33 (20110 187-194 Journal homepage.

Fournier, Suzanne, Crey Ernie. "Stolen From Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities." Douglas & McIntyre. 1997

Kelm, Mary-Ellen. "A Scandalous Procession: Residential Schooling and the Re/formation of Aboriginal Bodies, 1900-1950. Retrieved November 23, 2015

Monture-Angus, Patricia. "Thunder in My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks." Fernwood Publishing. 1995

Paul, N Daniel. We were not the Savages: First Nations History Retrieved November 17, 2015

Sinha, Vandha and Kozlowski, Anna. "The Structure of Aboriginal Child Welfare." Volume 4 Issue 2 2013

Razack, Sherene H. "Dying From Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody," University of Toronto Press 2015

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Volume One: Summary: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future." James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Publishers, Toronto. 2015


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-12-21
0 Reader Comments
Your Comments

The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.