Foster care replaced residential schools for Indigenous children, advocates say

The residential school system has been replaced by Canada’s child welfare system, advocates say, citing chronic underfunding by the federal government to services on reserves and the disproportionate rate of Indigenous children in foster care.

Across Canada, despite Indigenous children accounting for only seven per cent of the youth population as counted in the 2016 Census, 52 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous. This means just under 15,000 children in private foster care homes under the age of 15 are Indigenous.

Indigenous Services Canada classified 9,246 children as “in care” in the 2017/18 fiscal year but that data does not include Inuit, Metis, off-reserve Indigenous children or the Northwest Territories.

Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, Cindy Blackstock, said that Canadians might not be fully aware of the scale of ongoing systemic challenges facing Indigenous children.

“What the public may not know is that the federal government funds all the public services on reserve for First Nations children and has done so at lesser levels than all other Canadians receive since confederation,” Blackstock said on CTV’s Your Morning Monday. “In 2016 we actually got a legal order for them to stop that discriminatory provision of services because it was driving these kids unnecessarily away from their families in numbers that far exceed residential schools. The government welcomed the decision and then didn’t comply.”

Blackstock said there have been 19 procedural non-compliance orders since their 2016 legal challenge, and despite the passage of Bill C-92 in 2019 meant to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care, “the federal government is taking First Nation children to court,” with the next date scheduled in two weeks.

“At the centre of that litigation is number one and number three truth and reconciliation calls to action,” Blackstock said, citing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report.

The first call to action is to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care by monitoring neglect investigations, providing accurate resources, training and educating social workers in the history and impacts of residential schools, Indigenous cultures and communities and ensuring that child-welfare decision makers take into account the impact of residential schools on Indigenous children and their families.

The third call to action is for all governments to fully implement Jordan’s Principle, a child-first legal requirement aimed at eliminating service inequalities and delays for First Nations children.

Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations filed a human rights complaint in 2007 alleging the government had discriminated against Indigenous children by providing less funding and poorer services than it did for non-Indigenous children.

In 2016, the federal government was found guilty.

In September 2019, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the federal government to provide $40,000 in compensation to the each of the victims of its discrimination.

The court date in two weeks is the latest battle to get the government to pay out the compensation ordered in 2019 to 165,000 First Nations children and families.

“Forty thousand dollars – keep in mind this is a loss of childhood and a loss of life even – it’s not very much money,” Blackstock said. “And yet the federal government has yet to pay the money and since 2019 has not paid one penny to these children. These broad statements about ‘we will compensate’ what they really mean is they will compensate only on their terms and in their timing.”

While the federal government has touted its recent Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis children, youth and families, which came into force January 2020, as a watershed moment in addressing Indigenous children in foster care, Blackstock said Canadians need to demand that the federal government stop fighting First Nations people in court and to “follow the legal rulings and get these kids what they deserve.”

On Friday, the MP for Nunavut Mumilaaq Qaqqaq told the House of Commons that “colonization is not over. It has a new name. Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system. The suicide epidemic is the new form of Indigenous genocide.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet acknowledged the “unacceptable” reality that First Nations, Inuit and Metis children are still being taken from their families in disproportionately high numbers and placed in foster care. The federal government says it’s working to change that.

INEQUALITY ON RESERVE

Blackstock says part of the issue and legacy of residential schools cited in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the chronic lack of adequate, equitable services and education for children on reserve, which then funnels them into foster care.

A 2018 report form the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that foster care system acts as a “pipeline” to incarceration. Indigenous adults accounted for 31 per cent of incarcerated people from 2018 to 2019, despite representing 4.5 per cent of the adult population.

Conditions that put Indigenous children into the child welfare system are “related to the intractable legacies of residential schools including poverty, addictions and domestic and sexual violence,” according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

According to the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal, nearly half of the instances where Indigenous children were found to be mistreated were attributable to neglect, with roughly a third witnessing intimate partner violence.

In March, a report by Manitoba’s children’s advocate that reviewed the deaths of 19 young children in the province found holes in oversight and lack of support from child welfare, concluding that “each death was preventable.”

The report, entitled “Still Waiting: Investigating Child Maltreatment after the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry,” recognized the impact and role of racism, poverty, sexism and colonization in the child deaths. It found that of the 19 children who died from maltreatment between 2008 and 2020, 42 per cent were First Nations, and two children were Metis.

The report acknowledged that of the almost 10,000 children in care in Manitoba, 90 per cent are Indigenous.

Blackstock, who has an active Twitter presence documenting and advocating on behalf of Indigenous children, has repeatedly pointed out the reasons that Indigenous children are disproportionately taken away from their families and put in care centre around systemic issues of disadvantage and poverty.

The 2011 National Household Survey showed that 38 per cent of Indigenous children live in poverty, compared to seven per cent for non-Indigenous children.

“The schools are in very poor condition, according to the parliamentary budget officers – I’ve seen them myself, sometimes with black mould, rodents, there was even a school in Manitoba that was filled with snakes,” Blackstock said, citing the 2016 parliamentary budget officer review. “If you were to compare, for example, the amount of money that goes to francophone education per student to that of First Nations children – it’s inequitable. There’s hardly any money for cultural-based or language-based resource development for teaching.”

Blackstock is calling on the government to implement early childhood education programs on reserve.

“There’s very little early childhood programs and during the pandemic we’ve seen how important those are to parents to be able to work and children for their development – there’s very little of that in First Nations communities,” she said.