You can’t talk about reforming our child welfare system — or scrapping it altogether and starting anew — without talking to Indigenous people.
And it would be even more foolish not to listen to those arguably most affected by the current system — Indigenous youth who have spent time in care.
As part of this series, The Tyee spoke with four young adults who had been in care, all actively working to improve outcomes for kids in care. We talked about their own experiences, what could have been done to keep their families together and what they would like to see happen now for Indigenous kids and families in need of help.
The conversations were so engaging and important that we decided that instead of writing one article, we would present them as four separate Q&As.
First up is Ashley Bach, age 23. Now a master’s of environmental planning and management student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Bach was taken into care before her mother even had a chance to take her home from the Vancouver hospital where she was born. Despite being born and raised on the West Coast, Bach is from the Mishkeegogamang Ojibway First Nation of northwest Ontario.
In addition to studying part time and holding down a full-time job, Bach is on the executive of the Youth in Care Canada board of directors. Responsible for establishing provincial and territorial Youth in Care Networks across the country, the organization is probably best known for its Ken Dryden scholarship and its data map of all the provincial and territorial post-secondary scholarships available for youth in and from care. It also does research and advocacy on behalf of kids in care.
The Tyee: How old were you when you went into care?
Bach: I went right into care from the hospital when I was born. I was born on the other side of the country from my community, and went into B.C.’s segregated foster-care system in the Indigenous stream and was fostered by a white family for five years, and then they adopted me. During that time and continuing on through my high school years, they fostered over 30 other kids.
Were you connected to your culture or birth family growing up?
No, not at all. All my foster siblings were Indigenous, but given that I was growing up out west and my community is in northwestern Ontario, there was really no connection there at all. And unfortunately my foster/adoptive parents didn’t really understand that there’s more than one native culture and people are different across the country. And I don’t think they even realized that it was important for me to know. They told me for the longest time that I was from Winnipeg.
What was it like growing up without that connection to culture and community?
I really didn’t care and I actually was very glad about it for the longest time as a kid, because I grew up in Langley. Pretty racist. My foster parents were white and not very informed, as were most of the people around me. I’m also fortunately quite white passing, as long as I don’t go outside too much. I very actively avoided associating with anything native at all, and now I understand why I was like that. Looking back on it, my adoptive parents for one didn’t have the resources to connect me with my culture, and they just were not informed about Indigenous peoples overall. And then two, they didn’t really have the ability — and I don’t think they ever really will — to fully comprehend the racism and internalized racism.
Could you give an example?
There’s your typical media stuff and stuff in movies. And then also just stuff that kids say, you pick up on that. Like I remember a guy I went to school with said native people need to get over it, they don’t deserve status, all they’re doing is mooching off of our money and our taxes. Because the education system, the school that I went to, really wasn’t progressive, I didn’t have the knowledge to counter that. I was just like, “Oh no, maybe we are just mooching off of people and doing a disservice to the whole country.”
I remember seeing my community on TV, and it was because of the housing crisis up there. They have people living in tents even though it gets to -50 in the winter. That, combined with being told that chiefs, all they do is spend all the money that should be going to the community, all they are is corrupt — I was like, wow, my community is so bad off I don’t even want to be associated with it.
What could the government have done differently to prevent you from going into care in the first place?
A lot of things they could have done. My grandmother went to residential school up in Sioux Lookout, and that really messed her up. My mom was born on the rez north of Sioux Lookout and they ended up in Thunder Bay and then my mom went into foster care. She ran away when she was 16 or 17 and got addicted to heroin, ended up on [Vancouver’s] Downtown Eastside and so that’s why I went into care. If the government hadn’t done all of these terrible things, that would have been the best way to have prevented me from ending up in care.
I guess it would be a matter of having programs and supports in place to undo all those years of trauma.
What could child welfare services have done to improve your experience in care?
I think a lot of it would have come down to education and programs. First off, it would have been great if my parents had more of an understanding of Indigenous people, if they had also understood the issues of racism. I was absorbing all these things around me, and they were things that they wouldn't notice because they’re not native.
The other issue is my community is on the other side of the country from where I grew up, and that’s hard. I’ve been there once, and the only way I managed to get there was I got funded to do research on climate change with my community, that’s the only time I’ve been there. It would have been great if the child welfare services had some sort of program or funding to help their youth in care maintain connections and build connections with people in their communities. Because that’s something I’m never going to have.
I’m in environmental science, and I literally didn’t grow up in a place where I should have. I grew up out west, so I can picture plants and animals — I’m very visual. But up north where my community is, I didn’t grow up with that, I didn’t get any of that.
What does your ideal Indigenous child welfare system look like?
It would be child-centred and it would always have the kids’ best interests in mind. As much as I don’t like the idea of the government determining the kids’ best interests, I guess if it’s a provincial program it would have to be the government determining that. But then the issue of First Nations’ jurisdiction comes into play, so maybe it should be the communities determining what’s best for their children.
But realistically it would be limiting the amount of trauma that you experience in care, so limiting the exposure to violence, limiting how many times you move, preventing that feeling of being worthless — it could just mean giving kids duffle bags instead of garbage bags to move their stuff in. Or like having social workers who talk to you like a person, instead of talking down to you or telling you what to do or where to go.
And in the sense of it being child-centred, too, for Indigenous children it would be having a cultural component. And it wouldn’t necessarily be forcing kids to go to cultural events, but it would be having that open and consistent line of communication that would enable kids to decide whether or not they want to connect with their communities or their cultures, and then having the resources readily available if they do.
I keep hearing that overhauling the child welfare system or creating a new one is going to take time. What is something that government could do right now that would help kids and families that are currently in the system?
Two things. Again one would be limiting the amount of trauma that kids experience while they’re in care. This wouldn’t even require, necessarily, an overhaul of the system. It would just be making sure that you’re placing kids in safe homes, that their siblings are safe and are not going to come after them at night. Sleeping with one eye open is awful, it’s stressful. And having readily available counsellors and social workers, all those sorts of supports to address any existing traumas. So that would be step one.
And then step two would be having resources and programs available to help foster kids connect with their families. There’s a community out west that does a summer camp and brings in foster kids from the community, and they bring them out on the land. Some of the kids are young, so their foster parents might come, or if they have contact maybe someone from their biological family might come too. So that means that they don’t have very many kids, because that’s a lot of people.
I have looked into that at the Ontario level, and the funding just isn’t there. I mean, frankly, it would be really hard to pull off in the northern remote communities here. But that would be one thing that would at least get kids somewhat connected to their communities, and they could make friends. They could have people there that they know.
Or maybe not even community level, though that would be ideal, but then they’d need 634 different programs running. But maybe even just at a regional level. What I think of there is Ontario’s Nishnawbe Aski Nation, they’re mainly made up of Treaty 9 communities. They have 49 communities in northwestern Ontario and they would have the capacity to pull off that sort of program.
What gives you hope?
Seeing that youth in care are organizing themselves and coming forward, speaking about their experiences, and also speaking about what they believe to be solutions for their negative experiences. That gives me a lot of hope. Hopefully conditions will be improving for Indigenous child welfare, and that is also hopeful. Canada has been fairly resistant against the tribunal rulings. [The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the federal government had been systematically discriminating against First Nations children by underfunding services.]. But the [federal budget’s $1.4-billion] funding announcement yesterday was a bit of a surprise, so that also seems hopeful. But mainly seeing youth say, “hey, this is our life and you can’t just treat us poorly.”
Coming Tuesday: In part four, former prime minister Paul Martin and advocate Cindy Blackstock on Canada’s decades of failure to fix a system everyone knew was broken.