Indigenous people used to be sovereign nations and existed independently for thousands of years. It was only in the last couple hundred years that they have lost their sovereignty and been forcibly beholden to the laws and rules of a foreign government: The Government of Canada. Some of these laws and rules meant that Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools.
Very Brief Introduction To Residential Schools
Here is a propaganda video for residential schools:
As can be seen by this video some people could think by merely watching the video that residential schools were a nice, happy place with its sole purpose only to provide Indigenous children an education and help them adapt to “civilized society.” Even Manitoba’s minister of Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern relations Alan Lagimodiere recently said: “From my knowledge of it, the residential school system was designed to take Indigenous children and give them the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward.”
But, despite the happy image that some government officials try to give residential schools, residential schools were far from a happy place and were made with the intention to eradicate Indigenous culture and assimilate Indigenous children into the mainstream Canadian society.
What were some things that happened in residential schools?
- Many children were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their own cultural traditions or wear their traditional languages
- Many children were also abused and neglected
- Some children even committed suicide as a result of the trauma they suffered
What effects did residential schools have on Indigenous culture?
- It had a very destructive effect on Indigenous culture where many traditions were lost and as a result many Indigenous children lost connections to their families and culture.
- The practice of residential schools has caused a large number of Indigenous people today to be unable to speak their own traditional languages or to have no knowledge of their own cultural traditions.
- Intergenerational trauma from residential schools has led to the numerous issues that Indigenous people struggle with today such as mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence.
The last residential school closed in the 1990’s. But while the residential school system has officially ended – has the spirit and intent of residential schools ended?
Indigenous Children and the Canadian Child Welfare System
“The intense involvement of the child welfare system in Indigenous life emerged concurrently with the deterioration of the Residential Schools in the 1950s.”Raven Sinclair via her paper “The Indigenous Child Removal System in Canada: An Examination of Legal Decision-making and Racial Bias.”
What the child welfare system sometimes is like for Indigenous children:
- Many Indigenous children are placed in “white dominant mainstream homes” where the primary language spoken is English. Many of the foster families are also Christian and mostly do not attempt to teach their Indigenous foster children about Indigenous spiritual practices or traditions, rather attempting to convert the children into Christianity.
- Similar to residential schools, the cultural disconnection Indigenous children experienced in care often caused them to feel alienated which often led to mental illness and substance abuse.
- While the child welfare system is supposed to provide Indigenous children with safe homes, there are cases where Indigenous children were placed in homes where they were abused or killed by their caregivers. One example being Kawliga Potts.
- Indigenous girls in care were also found to be four times more likely of being victims of sexual abuse than non-Indigenous girls. Oftentimes, social workers failed to report the abuse to law enforcement.
A Government census in 2016 showed that Indigenous children make up over half the amount of children in foster care, yet are only 7 percent of the children’s population in Canada. Heck, in Manitoba Indigenous children make up 90% of children in care. How does such skewed statistics happen? Is it because the majority of Indigenous people in comparison to other races are just really terrible parents? Or is it because the Government of Canada discriminates against Indigenous families?
***(Spoiler alert: The federal government of Canada itself even recently admitted that they discriminated against Indigenous children. Heck, for years the Government of Canada was even allowing Indigenous children to be medically experimented on in residential schools as well.)
Some reasons why Indigenous children are so overly represented in the child welfare system:
The 2007 paper “Residential Schools: Did They Really Close or Just Morph Into Child Welfare?” by the accomplished and (in my opinion) radiantly amazing scholar/activist Cindy Blackstock has highlighted some of the reasons why Indigenous children are so disproportionately represented in the child welfare system:
- Indigenous children are less likely to be reported to social services for reasons of abuse than non-Indigenous children, but “twice as likely to be reported for neglect.” (75)
- “When researchers unpacked neglect, the only factors that accounted for the over representation were caregiver poverty, poor housing and substance misuse.” (75)
- Basically, the paper suggests Indigenous children are being apprehended at higher rates because they are poor, and not because of abuse.
- The paper also points out that the federal government purposely doesn’t provide as much funding in child welfare services for Indigenous children as it does for non-Indigenous children.
So, if a large number of Indigenous children are being apprehended because they are poor, it’s interesting that the Government of Canada is mainly responsible for the systematic poverty many Indigenous people face due to its colonial practices in the past. Even John A Macdonald thought it was a reasonable idea to starve Indigenous people so that they would be easier to control.
Another reason Indigenous children could be so overly represented in government care is because Indigenous families are held to colonial non-Indigenous cultural standards and laws. These are the same colonial standards that viewed Indigenous culture as savage and uncivilized. This is probably why many child welfare organizations are so dismissive of Indigenous children’s cultural needs, because they consider their cultural needs less important than their ability to assimilate to mainstream Canadian society.
An article by CBC also points out that foster parents are financially supported so that they can provide for their foster children. A question I have is: if a reason Indigenous parents lose custody of their children is because they can’t afford to care for them – why doesn’t the Canadian government give the money and financial support that they give to foster parents to Indigenous parents instead so that Indigenous parents can afford to care for their children? Do they prefer that Indigenous children be raised in non-Indigenous homes? An article by APTN showcases some of the reasons that the child welfare system could be considered a business.
How birth alerts were a tool of discrimination:
I would like to mention the practice of birth alerts. Birth alerts are basically when social services will “alert” hospitals about an expectant parent that they suspect will not be able to ensure the safety of their newborn baby. When the baby is born, hospitals will alert social services which usually results in child apprehension straight from the hospital. In my opinion, the practice of birth alerts in Canada was another tool of discrimination. Usually, children are only apprehended if there is evidence of neglect or abuse. But with the practice of birth alerts children could be apprehended only on the suspicion of future neglect or abuse, where social services would seize newborn babies from mothers right from the hospital. This practice disproportionately affected Indigenous mothers.
A young Indigenous mother was even red-flagged for a birth alert merely because she had been a former foster child herself.
Some Closing Thoughts of Mine
If the Government of Canada wants to continue forcibly apprehending Indigenous children from their families and communities I think they should ensure:
- That the children are being raised in safe homes
- That the children are provided with cultural support
- All efforts should be made that children remain connected to family and communities
Otherwise if these conditions aren’t meant, I don’t see how the modern day child welfare system is any different than residential schools.
Of course, not all foster homes are abusive and culturally destructive. But, in my opinion there shouldn’t ever be a single case where an Indigenous child is placed into unsafe and culturally disconnectful homes, especially with the history of residential schools.
I also believe it should be up to Indigenous communities themselves to decide whether or not their children should be removed from their community/family, especially after a long history of the Government of Canada forcibly removing children from their homes for the purpose of assimilation. (In addition to residential schools, the Government of Canada also tried to assimilate Indigenous children through the Sixties Scoop.)
Reconciliation will be a long and complicated process, but I think for too long the Government of Canada has been acting as if Indigenous people aren’t suited to raise their own children. However, for thousands of years before colonialism Indigenous people were able to safely care for their children and make the right decisions for them. And they still can.
One thing I really like is that recently the Government of Canada passed the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families. This led to the Cowessess First Nations being given sovereignty over deciding whether their children were removed from their community. I think it’s a wonderful step towards reconciliation.
This blog post was a very brief overview of reasons why I think the child welfare system in Canada could be considered an extension of residential schools. Despite being Indigenous, I would by no means consider myself an expert on the issues I mentioned in my blog post. But, I did my best to research the information and present it all as accurately as possible. I strongly encourage you to do more research on your own. I recommend reading these two papers as a starting point: