In the 1930s, government officials responsible for the residential school system in Canada were beginning to argue against residential schools.
According to reports submitted to the government starting in 1907, they didn’t cite the inherent cruelty of the system, the number of dead, ill and harmed children.
Instead, Robert Hoey, director of welfare and training in the Indian Affairs branch of the federal department of mines and resources, argued:
“To build educational institutions, particularly residential schools, while the money at our disposal is insufficient to keep the schools already erected in a proper state of repair, is, to me, very unsound and a practice difficult to justify.”
Other government officials argued that the schools were failing to meet the intended goal of training and assimilating Indigenous children into European-Canadian society. There were some churches that felt the solution to the system’s failure was not restructuring but intensification.
Nevertheless, the residential school system began to phase out during the second half of the 20th century, with the last residential school finally closing in 1996.
Of course, this did not end the centuries long policy of separating Indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures.
Instead, in 1951, the Indian Act was amended to include the “general law of applicability” (Section 88), which meant that provincial or territorial child welfare legislation could now be applied on reserve. Initially, the provinces and territories could intervene on reserve only in extreme emergencies. The result was a massive and permanent removal of Indigenous children from their homes and communities to be placed in foster care and/or adopted. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 1996, between 1960 and 1990, 11,132 status First Nation children were placed in white, middle-class family homes, a period coined the “Sixties Scoop.”
Gail Cyr — whom this writer interviewed earlier this year — was one of these children.
Most of Gail Cyr’s family was placed in foster care. At five years old, Cyr wondered if she would die because the beatings were so bad. She still remembers the angry screams of her foster brother in that home and wonders if he is still alive.
In the 1980s, Cyr was asked to be complicit in the expansion of the child-welfare system, as director of the Native Court Workers Association in northern Canada.
The government had sent out a questionnaire about child welfare in Native communities. It was the most racist, privileged thing Cyr had ever seen, because everything, from the most minor and mundane to the most serious, was labeled as a threat to child welfare. At that time, she held a press conference about it because she feared that it would continue to feed the toxic idea of snatching children from their parents. A decade ago, after a lifetime, Cyr was finally reunited with two of her sisters. Now in her 70s, she has finally been able to connect with more of her family in Nelson House, Manitoba.
In 2007, the Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Child and Family Caring Society filed a human rights complaint against the federal government for underfunding child-welfare services for Indigenous children. In January 2016, they won.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa was racially discriminating with its funding approach, and its failure to implement what’s become known as Jordan’s Principle, a policy ensuring jurisdictional disputes don’t block First Nations children from getting medical services.
As Kyle Edwards put it in his feature story on the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care for Maclean’s:
“The tribunal’s findings were profound, pointing to a host of social factors that play a role in Indigenous children being placed in foster care, from poor housing to a lack of clean drinking water in First Nations communities. Ottawa chronically underfunds the agencies it charges with providing child-welfare services to First Nations children, the tribunal found, creating incentive to bring children into care. These agencies struggle with high turnover rates and an inability to emphasize prevention measures, the tribunal determined. That incentive is all the stronger given that if children are placed in care, costs to keep them there are reimbursed by Ottawa.”
The Canadian Human Rights Commission has awarded the maximum allowable award of $40,000 to all impacted children and families.
The government has spent millions of dollars fighting this decision.
In June, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, found herself in court again as the federal government tried once again to undermine the ruling.
Blackstock joined rabble.ca’s Off the Hill discussion on truth and reconciliation to discuss what the newest attempt to undermine the ruling looks like. It seems the Liberal government continues to look for praise for a litany of insincere apologies while continuing to stop real efforts to compensate families for the centuries of policies that continue to devastate First Nations communities and families.
First Nations have also worked to build their own child and family service agencies. After overcoming provincial and federal barriers, First Nations agencies came into existence in the early 1980s. They have faced opposition from provincial governments for decades and are under strict directives about how to operate and experience stricter funding controls than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Despite this, there is continued growth in the number of Indigenous child-welfare agencies and their scope is expanding to include both on- and off-reserve populations as well.
On July 7 the Assembly of First Nations and government of Canada signed a co-developed protocol to establish a new structure to support discussions on the implementation of the Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families.
The legislation and protocol are just one of the calls to action issued by the Caring Society and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission pertaining to child welfare.
Slow progress is being made through sustained activism to build better ways to protect First Nations children and put pressure on the federal government to actually fund and implement change.
However, as Blackstock wrote in Maclean’s: “The federal government, which has an insatiable appetite to be thanked for inadequate measures, should expect no gratitude for discrimination.”
Maya Bhullar has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.
Image: Crystal Luxmore/Flickr