Breaking Chains, Building Bridges: Addressing the Ongoing Struggle of Indigenous Child Removal in Ontario

Written by: Teiah Palhetas 

Edited by: Elizabeth Clarke

When child welfare authorities make the difficult decision to remove children from their caregivers due to concerns of abuse or neglect, the repercussions can be profoundly distressing for all parties involved. Children, families, and even entire communities are affected by these actions. Entering into foster care introduces far-reaching consequences that can adversely affect a child’s future well-being. While the necessity of placing some children in care for their safety is acknowledged, for Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous families, navigating the child welfare system and experiencing a child’s removal raises troubling concerns about the system’s ability to meet their needs. There is a pervasive concern that the system is harmful and discriminatory. 

The overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster care system stands as a glaring testament to the enduring shadows of colonization. Beyond the closure of residential schools and the implementation of policies such as Bill C-92, a policy in which Indigenous communities and groups will be free to develop policies and laws based on their particular histories, cultures, and circumstances, the statistics underscore a stark reality: in 2021, Indigenous children, constituting only 7.7% of the child population, comprised an alarming 53.8% of those in the foster care system. Delving into the intricacies contributing to this crisis shows that the necessary repairs extend far beyond individual parenting or immediate policy adjustments. The disproportionate removal of Indigenous children from their homes and families into the foster care system is a result of systemic issues: poverty, the severe lack of understanding of Indigenous culture, and the relentless echoes of colonization. Therefore, the transformation needed to rectify this deeply entrenched crisis lies in a comprehensive process of decolonization, acknowledging historical context, understanding socio-political intricacies, and actively dismantling colonial structures to pave the way for a child welfare system that is equitable, culturally sensitive, and geared towards family preservation. 

When an Indigenous child is placed into the foster system, it is most often attributed to “neglect” by child welfare services However, the child-rearing practices of Indigenous communities, varying among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, are molded by communal involvement. Contrary to institutional norms that emphasize the nuclear family, these practices may not align with Indigenous communities. Indigenous families derive their definition from cultural and identity aspects, characterized by considerable flexibility. In this context, Indigenous children may reside with multiple families, have numerous caregivers, and navigate intricate kinship systems. This complexity in Indigenous family structures presents a challenge for child welfare investigations, which typically perceive neglect as a failure by caregivers without accounting for alternative kinship systems. 

In other cases, neglect often stems not from the willful neglect of parents but rather from families grappling with financial constraints that hinder their ability to provide adequate care for their children. When families lack the financial means to afford essentials such as food, clothing, medicine, and even a place to live, the capacity to care for a child becomes severely compromised. It’s crucial to note that this neglect does not indicate a lack of parental love; it is a consequence of financial limitations. Shockingly, one in four Indigenous individuals lives in poverty, a harsh reality that makes it more likely for their children to become subject to the child welfare system due to allegations of neglect. This poverty can be traced back to the enduring impacts of colonization, such as the dispossession of land, loss of traditional practices, forced cultural assimilation, residential schools, and the ongoing trauma faced by Indigenous communities. 

These alarming statistics have prompted the Canadian federal government to take preliminary measures to assist Indigenous communities. A pivotal development has been the delegation of the mandate, or the authority, for child welfare services from provincial governments to Indigenous communities through the enactment of Bill C-92. This legislation empowers Indigenous communities to establish their own child welfare service facilities, employ social workers attuned to historical discrimination, and grant greater autonomy to Indigenous communities in supporting families according to their unique perspectives. However, challenges persist. Indigenous communities face the choice between constructing their own service centers or utilizing existing government-built facilities like the Children’s Aid Society (CAS). Yet, for a community to construct its own facility, it must have access to clean drinking water. And despite the government’s past commitment to eliminating long-term drinking water advisories in Indigenous communities, 19 communities in Ontario still grapple with these issues, such as the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation community and the Oneida Nation of the Thames, both of which are notably located only two hours outside Toronto. Consequently, these communities find themselves unable to operate their own child welfare systems autonomously. Another critical issue is the glaring economic inequality between Indigenous communities and the broader Canadian population. Neglect stemming from poverty, which stems from colonization, which is identified as the core problem behind the extreme overrepresentation of Indigenous children, then addressing this economic disparity becomes imperative. It is a systemic issue that requires adequate funding for essential aspects such as housing, education, and healthcare. By allocating resources strategically, governments can eliminate many of the reasons for separating families in the first place, breaking the cycle and fostering a more equitable and supportive environment for Indigenous communities. 

Social initiatives like Orange Shirt Day are certainly a step in the right direction in terms of encouraging and educating Canadians toward reconciliation. However, more concrete economic and policy actions are still required to dismantle the structural inequalities discussed herein. Economic considerations are intricately linked to social issues, a nexus vividly illustrated by the evident connection between poverty and the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the foster care system. 

Consequently, a pivotal step is providing economic solutions to uplift Indigenous communities. However, the specific administration of these solutions remains uncertain, given the myriad approaches available. In contemplating potential solutions, the focus must extend beyond individual interventions and immediate fixes. Decolonization emerges as a critical strategy, acknowledging historical injustices and actively dismantling colonial structures embedded in societal frameworks. This involves fostering autonomy, recognizing Indigenous knowledge systems, and prioritizing community-led initiatives that address economic disparities at their roots. 

While the task at hand is complex and perfection remains elusive, it is vital to acknowledge the historical injustices embedded in Canada’s past. Tragically, lives have been lost due to the nation’s history, an undeniable and unjust reality. Despite the challenges, the present and future offer opportunities to rectify these wrongs. Collective efforts toward a more equitable future demand advocacy for and solidarity with marginalized communities. This commitment, irrespective of personal benefits, aligns with the ethical imperative of doing what is right. 

References:

Branch, L. S. (2023, April 21). Consolidated federal laws of Canada, Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations. Laws-Lois.justice.gc.ca. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/sor-86-304/page-14.html 

Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect. (2008). https://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/CIS-2008-rprt-eng.pdf 

Government of Canada. (2021, February 26). Remaining long-term drinking water advisories. www.sac-Isc.gc.ca. https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1614387410146/1614387435325 

 Indigenous Services Canada. (2019, June 21). Bill C-92: An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families receives Royal Assent. Canada.ca; Government of Canada News. https://www.canada.ca/en/indigenous-services-canada/news/2019/06/an-act-respecting-fir st-nations-inuit-and-metis-children-youth-and-families-receives-royal-assent.html  

Indigenous Services Canada. (2023, February 15). Reducing the number of Indigenous children in care. Sac-Isc.gc.ca; Government of Canada. https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1541187352297/1541187392851 

Listening to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities: Engagement on Recognizing and Supporting Indigenous Identity and Kinship. (2023). https://umanitoba.ca/indigenous/sites/indigenous/files/2023-05/IndigenousIdentityReport 2023-FNL-Web.pdf 

Poverty in Canada. (n.d.). Canadian Poverty Institute. https://www.povertyinstitute.ca/poverty-canada#:~:text=A%20Few%20Facts&text=Indig enous%20peoples%20in%20Canada%20experience 

Image source:

Columbia, P. of B. (2018, September 30). Orange Shirt Day 2018. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bcgovphotos/43208129180