Isolation of Indigenous children continues in foster care system, Grand Chief says

It's been 25 years since the last of Canada's residential schools closed its doors, but for many Indigenous families, the trauma continues with the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care.

Living in foster homes contributes to a cycle of suffering and loss of identity for Indigenous youth, according to experts.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, spent his entire childhood in foster care.

He returned to the Okanagan Nation as an adult, alone and unable to speak his people's language.

"I came home virtually not knowing who I was," Phillip recalls. “It was traumatic. It made me feel very insecure and less than. I engaged in alcohol and drug abuse. Suicidal thoughts were my constant companion.”

He told CTV News Vancouver he believes the isolation children experienced at residential schools continues today in the foster care system.

Roughly eight per cent of all children under age 14 in Canada as of the 2016 census were Indigenous. Of the children in that age group who were in foster care, more than half - 52 per cent - were Indigenous.

That wildly disproportionate number is the product of intergenerational trauma, according to Dr. Jacqueline Marie Maurice, CEO of the '60s Scoop Healing Foundation

“When you haven’t had those basic needs of comfort, security, love, shelter, safety in your own life, it’s pretty hard to pass it on to the next generation,” Maurice said.

That trauma is not only the product of residential schools, but also of the '60s Scoop - in which thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their birth families, often without consent, to live with non-Indigenous families.

Maurice said Canada remains in a "Millennium Scoop" to this day.

“As the '60s Scoop wound down around the mid 1980s, there was a bit of a calm," she said. "But then, around 1991, you had the next scoop.”

In 2019, the federal government passed legislation giving First Nations the option to care for at-risk youth in their own communities.

Phillip said the law helps, but reconciliation starts with education. Canadians need to realize that the suffering for Indigenous youth has not ended.

“Canadians must, at a very early age, know and understand the colonial history of this country,” he said.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Travis Prasad