Rethinking the First Nations' Child Welfare Crisis

A Crisis of Families

During the many generations in which First Nations children were forcibly removed from their homes, a lasting legacy of brokenness was established. We often lament the physical and emotional abuse suffered by countless thousands of people. We lament the loss of culture and language. While it is impossible to entirely separate one loss from another, I will contend that the single most catastrophic consequence of residential schools has been their devastating impact on families.

As I listen to political pundits on radio and television discussing the present and longstanding crisis regarding the welfare of children on First Nations reserves I cringe. The answers all seem too simple. “More money is needed!” “Leave the children on reserve with relatives.” “Replace the provincial ‘corporate’ structures that account for money more than they do for the well-being of children.” Too often the commentary names a guilty party. The truth is that no-one is intentionally part of the problem, and the true culprit is history.

Amid just such a clamour of pundits on CBCs Sunday Scrum, I heard John Ibbitson make a comment that gave me a little bit of hope that the big city media might be capable of common sense after all. He said, “If we are abandoning Provincial and Federal responsibility for the delivery of child care services on reserve, to the leadership on the reserve, do the reserves have the capability to deliver those services?” “I need to know that there is a means by which we can guarantee that the reserves have the ability and the willingness to protect the children on the reserves. After all, those children are born vulnerable. Why were they born vulnerable? What led that vulnerability? What can we in the larger term do to make sure we don’t have children being born vulnerable on the reserve?” (see: beginning at 5:40)  These are all essential questions.

There can be no question that the crisis is real. There are far too many First Nations Children in care. I have had the pleasure over the years to teach many children from First Nations reserves who were in care. An effort was and is always made to connect them as much as possible to their own cultures and their own peoples, but it all amounts to visiting that which should be their home.

The brokenness of these children is also real. Many of their lives have been diminished by fetal alcohol, learning difficulties, substance abuse, and violence. The brokenness extends into adulthood where First Nations people are more likely than other people groups to be incarcerated. The challenges that we face together with First Nations peoples as we seek remedies are immense and complex.

The Relationship of the Current Crisis With Residential Schools

Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission correctly told Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott that it's no coincidence provinces with the highest rates of children in foster care generally are the same provinces that had the highest rates of residential schools. Philpott’s recent two-day emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare, described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” that is reliving the residential schools legacy under the guise of child protection. In an earlier interview on CBCs Power & Politics Philpott said, "This is very much reminiscent of the residential school system where children are being scooped up from their homes, taken away from their family and we will pay the price for this for generations to come." These statements, as big as they are, are still both understatements. It would be more correct to say that the cumulative effect of residential schools is a cause of the current crisis.

The primary consequence of the residential school debacle is the loss of parenting ability. Think about it. I learned from my parents how to be a parent. I copied the practices I perceived to be good and effective. That which I judged to be errors in my upbringing, I attempted not to pass on to my children. I now watch my grandchildren being parented in a remarkably similar way to the way I parented my own children. I can imagine the impact if I had been taken from my parents, if my children were then taken from me, and if my grandchildren were subsequently taken from my children. My family would most assuredly lose the ability to parent. Not only have First Nations people ‘forgotten’ the traditional ways in which they raised their children, but they also have not been taught an alternative.   Parenting is not intuitive; it is learned. It can also be unlearned by the systematic removal of children, and therefore of parenting, from the homes of many consecutive generations.

How Should We Intervene in Order to Make Things Right?

Furthermore, there is a profound connection between parenting and culture.  Though I was born in Canada to post war Dutch immigrant parents, my very Canadian grandson is reminded often of his heritage as he dresses in orange soccer shorts and devours double salted licorice. The loss of culture and loss of parenting exacerbate each other. The effect is cumulative. So when Ms. Philpott simplifies things by saying we need, “More emphasis on early intervention,” my question is, “How early?” Interventions now will likely have their greatest impact two or three generations down the road.

The more important question is, “What will this intervention look like?” The government has shown a willingness to throw money at this. What will the money be used for? It’s the same old story. Generation after generation we never ask First Nations people what they want. Money is never what they want. Money is never what anyone wants. Money is a means to an end. So what is the end that First Nations people desire? What of their culture and language would they like to reclaim? We do not know because we have never properly asked. What aspects of Western culture would they like to keep? What help would they like from us? How would First Nations people like the rest of Canada to assist them in their endeavour to reclaim what was lost? How can I help my First Nations brothers and sisters to remember and relearn how to raise families? We should ask them, don’t you think?

I need to make one last little point. The family-raising abilities that the First Nations people have lost, and the ones that they want (not necessarily the same thing), may look and function nothing like my family. Similarly, the schools they want and need may be structured differently and teach different learning outcomes than our government schools. If that is what they want, we should help them get there. But the journey is theirs. Let us ask them, at long last, what it is that they want in order to make everything right, in every way that it can be made right. However, I have this uneasy feeling that once again we will assume we already know what our First Nations friends want, and skip the part where we ask the most important question.