Before You Say You’re Sorry

The government apologizes to one generation of aboriginal Canadians while wronging another
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, The Walrus partnered with Journalists for Human Rights to present Write the Wrong 2009, an essay competition inviting high school students from across Canada to submit a piece on children’s rights. Shortlisted essays were reviewed by a panel including Kevin Newman (Global TV, The National); Mark Kelley (CBC, The National), Marci Ien (CTV, Canada AM), Jared Bland (The Walrus) and Ben Peterson (jhr). This is the winning entry. Prime Minister Steven Harper had the rapt attention of the nation last June as he issued an official apology for the abuse of the Residential School system:

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, (29 March 2009).

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, (29 March 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, (29 March 2009).

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, (29 March 2009).

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,
(29 March 2009).

8. Canada. National Council of Welfare, “First Nations, Métis and Inuit Children and Youth:
Time to Act,” Fall 2007, (29 March 2009).

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, (29 March 2009).

11. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, “Wen: de: We are Coming to the Light of Day,” February 2006, (29 March 2009).

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, (29 March 2009).

7 comment(s)

James S.E. AllenJune 06, 2009 08:15 EST

The word "indigenous" is equivalent to "aboriginal" in Canadian law as a result of rulings that predate the U.N.. However; that is not true of the word "indigenous" as used by the U.N. (nor should it be).

An aboriginal child placed with a family who is from Canada HAS been placed in an indigenous home. The curious defining of "indigenous" as "aboriginal" is the result of wishful thinking on the part of various ethnic nationalist movements - complete with their absurd fixation on blood origins as a central conveyance of rights.

Cindy BlackstockJune 11, 2009 16:26 EST

Thank you for doing this story - thousands of First Nations children are counting on caring and informed Canadians to ensure that the federal government gives First Nations children get an equal chance to live safely with their families. At this point, the federal government is spending thousands of tax payer dollars in an apparante effort to avoid a full hearing of the facts on the discrimination case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal using legal technicalities. If the federal government has nothing to hide from Canadians regarding its treatment of First Nations children then let the facts be heard at the tribunal. On the other hand if the federal government is trying to hide racial discrimination against vulnerable children then let Canadians be heard - because that would be appauling.

John BaglowNovember 16, 2009 07:57 EST

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.

This is the opposite of what the report actually says. For example, p.63 of the report states:

childhood sexual or physical abuse,
all deemed to be significantly higher
among the Aboriginal population than
the non-Aboriginal population.


The case is strong enough without this kind of inaccuracy creeping in to provide fodder for sceptics.

Mutfak Dolab?December 30, 2009 04:24 EST

I think most tragic aspect of this situation is that the vast majority of children are taken into care because of neglect.

güzellikJanuary 09, 2010 15:29 EST

cinsellik

AnonymousSeptember 12, 2010 22:07 EST

I totally agree with this article Iam one of the children who grew up in foster care at the age of five Iwas removed from my loving family never to be seen again by my family. I was part of the sixties scoop. My mother is now seventy four years old she was never given any help through her life .She was also a residential school survivor. My deacesed granma also went through residential school.Our Government has created a new generation of people whom have been damaged by their system, .when I turned twenty nine I found out I was First nation I had to find all the information about myself in order to get my status. The article I read years ago Written by our government states that the child welfare must maintain the childs status and inform them at the age of consent as to their aboriginal identity. They did not inform me also my birth records have been changed I do not have my corret birthdate also they expect me to live a lie when I know full well since the age of five who my parents are the new birth certificate states that my adoptive parents gave birth I cannot live with this lie, and I think someone should be held accountable. thank you P.s. there is so much more to say perhaps someone should e-mail about this subject?

yenidenalDecember 08, 2010 08:05 EST

Thank you for doing this story - thousands of First Nations children are counting on caring and informed Canadians to ensure that the federal government gives First Nations children get an equal chance to live safely with their families. At this point, the federal government is spending thousands of tax payer dollars in an apparante effort to avoid a full hearing of the facts on the discrimination case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal using legal technicalities. If the federal government has nothing to hide from Canadians regarding its treatment of First Nations children then let the facts be heard at the tribunal. On the other hand if the federal government is trying to hide racial discrimination against vulnerable children then let Canadians be heard - because that would be appauling. www.yenidenal.com

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