The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture…[positive experiences of the system] are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the… neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.
Flashbulbs lit up, cameras rolled, and newsstands overflowed with coverage as mainstream news sources detailed the event. Yet, as Harper spoke, a new “policy” which will ultimately have a “lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture”1 was being endured by Canadian aboriginal children of the 21st century. This is the real headliner: once again, a generation of aboriginal youth is suffering badly at the hand of government institution and inaction. History is repeating itself, if journalists—our nation’s eyes and ears—would care to take notice. Many of the injustices of the Residential School system have been reincarnated in Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Services to the extent that our nation is in gross violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC). The plight of aboriginal children in Canada’s foster care system is an issue that deserves far more attention from the nation’s media.
The UN CRC dictates that “states should always ensure that the principle of the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration in any alternative care placement of indigenous children.”2 Now, separating a child from their family is widely recognized as a measure of last resort among childcare professionals. Instead, “least disruptive measures” programs are favoured as in the child’s best interest.3 For all other foster care programs in Canada, all such methods of prevention and alternative arrangement must be exhausted before a child is removed from their home. Not so for aboriginal families. Cindy Blackstock, in her 2007 report to the Senate, explains, “Many of the First Nations agencies will tell you that it is not a problem to get $300 a day to put a child into foster care, but try to give $25 to a family so they can afford to feed the child and keep him or her safely in their home, and it is not possible under the current formula.”4 Where these programs exist, they are grossly underfunded.5 This methodology is in large reason why aboriginal children are overrepresented in the nation’s child protection services; while only comprising 3.8 percent of the Canadian population, they make up a staggering 30 percent of children in foster care.6
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this situation is that the vast majority of children are taken into care because of ‘neglect.’ When one closely examines the definition of the term and its key drivers—poverty, inadequate housing and addiction—it is debatable whose ‘neglect’ that is. In the words of the National Children’s Alliance, “It is important to note that two of the three factors are largely outside of parental control.”7 The National Council of Welfare last year pointed out that the rates of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as domestic violence, are no higher in aboriginal homes than in non-native homes.8 In effect, aboriginal children are being removed from their families and communities en masse because of the neglect of the government.
Even more disturbingly, this system amounts to assimilation. For the most part, aboriginal children are not being placed in homes of their culture; that is, three out of four are placed in non-aboriginal resources. In many cases, the cultural legacy of these youth is not even considered. According to Dexter Kinequon of Indian Child and Family Services, “Rarely does the continuity of the child’s culture influence the placement of the children in care.”9 This is in direct violation of the UN CRC, which states that when placing indigenous children in childcare, states must “pay due regard to the desirability of continuity in the child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.”10
Undeniably, a major underlying cause of the system’s ineffectiveness is a lack of funding. In a 2005 report, The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society exposed that the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development supplies 22 percent less funding per child to the aboriginal branch of foster care than the average province.11 The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations have also recognized this injustice. In 2007, these groups filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which alleged that the federal government’s “conscience under funding of child welfare amounted to racial discrimination within meaning of the Canadian human rights act.”12
It is the role of the media to elucidate issues which require in-depth analysis and a broad perspective. The journalist also shoulders the responsibility of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. There is no issue in recent Canadian history that cries out for these services such as this one: the aboriginal foster care system is a twisted web of mismanagement whose sufferers have traditionally had no voice in our society.
In light of the aforementioned statistics and testimonies, it is easy to envision the coming of another apology much like Stephen Harper’s. Reporters will flock as the future Prime Minister announces that “the government now recognizes that the consequences of the [Canadian child welfare system] were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture.”On TV, radio and in print, our leader will lament the “…neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.”13
The Canadian media has a choice. It can immediately investigate and make public the injustice of the child protection system, provoking debate, activism, government action, and perhaps even change. Alternatively, journalists can simply wait a generation or two, and cover this speech.
1. Canada. Office of the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Harper offers full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system, Ottawa: 11 June 2008,
2. United Nations, Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General Comment No. 11 (2009): Indigenous children and their rights under the Convention,” Geneva: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, fiftieth session, 30 January 2009,
3. British Columbia Aboriginal Child Care Society, “The Human Rights of Indigenous Children
in Canada: Comments prepared by BC ACCS for Canada’s Report to the UN Committee, Convention on the Rights of the Child,” 14 July 2008,
4. Blackstock testimony, 29 May 2006; Marilyn Hedlund, Executive Director, Child and Family Services, Government of Saskatchewan, testimony before the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, 19 September 2006.
5. Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, “Children: The Silenced Citizens, Effective implementation of Canada’s international obligations with respect to the rights of children, final report”, April 2007,
6. Canada, Statistics Canada, “Census of Canada, 2006: Profile of Aboriginal Children, Youth and Adults”, Ottawa, Ont.: Statistics Canada, 16 January 2009,
<2006 Profile of Aboriginal Children, Youth and Adults http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/89-635/index.cfm> (29 March 2009).
7. National Children’s Alliance, “Policy Statement on Aboriginal Children”, 2005,
8. Canada. National Council of Welfare, “First Nations, Métis and Inuit Children and Youth:
Time to Act,” Fall 2007,
9. Kinequon, Dexter, Executive Director, Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Indian Child and Family Services, testimony before the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, 19 September 2006.
10. United Nations, Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General Comment No. 11 (2009): Indigenous children and their rights under the Convention,” Geneva: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, fiftieth session. 30 January 2009,
11. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, “Wen: de: We are Coming to the Light of Day,” February 2006,
12. Blackstock, Cindy, “The Occasional Evil of Angels: Learning from the Experiences of
Aboriginal Peoples and Social Work,” First Peoples Child and Family Review 4, no. 1 (2009): 28-37.
13. Canada. Office of the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Harper offers full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system, Ottawa: 11 June 2008,