Jaye Simpson doesn’t want to fix the foster care system. They know from experience the system can’t be fixed, because it’s not broken.
“It’s never been broken, it’s doing exactly what it’s been designed [to do] — this is the grandchild of residential school. We need to look at that,” said Simpson, who was born and raised in B.C. but is a member of the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in Manitoba.
“We can’t fix a system that’s been designed to destroy us. The only flaw in this system is that some of us survived.”
Simpson, who prefers the pronouns they/them, is 23. But they spent 16 years in government care before aging out at 19.
Today Simpson, an Oji-Cree trans person, is a poet and activist for youth in care issues with plenty of ideas for how Indigenous child and family services should be done differently.
The Tyee sat down with Simpson in Vancouver, prior to provincial and federal budget announcements on new dollars for Indigenous child welfare, to talk about their experience in care
The Tyee: How old were you when you first went into care?
Jaye Simpson: I was three years old. Historically though I was in care in Manitoba when I was younger than three. But there was no transfer of information. The B.C file doesn’t have any information about my time in care in Manitoba. But in my file it does say that I was in foster care.
What was the care situation in Manitoba?
I was placed into a foster home of a pretty large family. They were white folks. But at the time the social workers did not have information that we were Indigenous. I was there with two siblings. So when I was apprehended my sister was two years old and my little brother had only been [born] a few days.
I was born in Vancouver and it was when my mother went to go visit Manitoba after I was born that she was arrested and had to do some time. And at that time I was placed into a foster home. I’m pretty sure it was less than six months I was in Manitoba.
And you were back with your mom after that?
Yes I was back with my mother. There was no communication between Manitoba and British Columbia.
When you were placed into care at age three, was it in your own community?
It was in Langley that we were placed. I believe that we had been living in Langley or Aldergrove, somewhere around there, so it was relatively close. But at the time all I had was like day care, there wasn’t really community as a younger person.
I know that I’ve had some relatives and community members [in Manitoba] reach out to me on Facebook and say the last time I saw you you were just a little bundle, you were babbling, just beginning to like make noises and stuff like that. And that confused me because when I was having conversations with my social workers when I was in care they didn’t know I had people who knew me in the home community, I had relatives in the home community. There was no background check done and no family check done to see if there was any family members back home.
Now I realize I wouldn’t want to go back. I'm a little bit at risk there in regards to my queer identity, as well. So it being a small town I think it would be a little bit tricky, and it kind of breaks my heart that although I do want to have that home, I also want to live. So it's complex.
The family you were placed with in Langley, were they white?
And did you stay with the same family?
I stayed with them for a year and a half and then we were moved because that home had their own children. They had me and my siblings and one other. So the social worker was like OK there’s too many people here.
So we were moved into a house in Surrey, which had three other kids as well. But the house was bigger so it depends on how many rooms you have, how many windows are in the room.
Did you have any contact with your mom?
I have some memory of some visits. At the time my mother was struggling with her drug addiction. It was a very troublesome time for her. Losing all three kids in one go was a lot to deal with. She was living in the Downtown Eastside. There was times where she would go missing for several months. She would just be gone off the face of the planet and then pop up a little bit later. There were times where they would set up visits and they would be like, OK you have to be two months clean. And then she would get upset before the visit and then use again, not show up. So then eventually they stopped visits.
Do you remember how old you were when they stopped visits?
It was five. They stopped pretty young because she went missing. They found her again because she had been hit by a train — she had survived but she lost her arm and her leg. She was wheelchair bound. And because of that she actually got more services — it took a major accident in order to get services that would allow her recovery. Unfortunately she was living with HIV/AIDS, and it was going untreated for a very long time. So her autoimmune system was quite weak.
When I was 13 years old she was hospitalized and then got sick and passed away. The last couple of years of her life were very tumultuous. I was told she passed away. My foster mother at the time told me because she believed I deserved to know. But the way they were framing it was they were villainizing my mother for what she was going through and what she had experienced. And when you’re young, it conditioned me to have a lot of resentment towards my mother, where now all I have is compassion and patience, and I wish I had that back then.
How many foster homes did you end up going to?
Five, which is considered a small number.
How old were you?
I was 13. The only reason they actually moved me was because they were looking to move us. They’d been trying for years to relocate us, because they didn’t like my foster mother. So they only listened to me because it benefited them. It was in the files. I actually have access to my files: 4,000 pages. I’ve read it all umpteen times.
Then there were three other placements between that and aging out?
The first placement was in Manitoba, so I counted that. And then the second to last placement was in Aldergrove. And I was there for two years and a couple months. And it was a very conservative white family, Mennonite. The Mennonite community was actually very lovely. The youth group was very fun. The unfortunate thing was it became very abusive. And within three months of living [there] I had communicated that it was no longer safe for me there, it was not a good fit. The social worker said well it’s that or a hotel or a group home. So be lucky that you have a home, that you have a foster mother. Not everyone has that.
It wasn’t until my foster mother at the time resigned from taking care of me [that I moved]. She had told the social workers that she would rather have me in police custody than in her custody. The recommendation was to keep me in my room at all times for three weeks before they found a placement for me. I was not allowed phone access, monitored every time I left my room.
And your last placement?
They’re my family. They’re the happy ending that I didn’t think I would get. I have gone back to their house for the past three Christmases. I go up there sometimes during the summer. They’re in Kamloops. When I moved in with them it was in Aldergrove. And they were realizing I was having a hard time. And they said we have a house in Kamloops. We want to move there. If you want to come with us, we think it would be good. And it was [in] Kamloops that I did a lot of healing. I began to participate in the Secwe̓pemc culture, I would go to witness a lot of their ceremonies and a lot of their culture.
I became a huge brat because I had to fight to be heard in the last home. I was a monster, in my opinion, and my foster parents — I had a conversation with them last year and I was like I’m sorry for being an absolute monster. And they both laughed and were like we’ve both read your file, we know what happened.
I don’t think I would have graduated high school or gone to university if it hadn’t been for them. They had put a fire under my ass. When I wanted to go to certain camps they sent me to camps. If I wanted to do theatre they sent me to theatre things. They really listened. And that was pretty amazing.
Were you living in Kamloops when you turned 19 and aged out of care?
Yeah, which I think was maybe a good thing because it’s a little bit more affordable in Kamloops. It was hard at first, no one would rent to a youth in care. What the social workers had done was they had put me on independent living for the last six months of my time in care. So I actually lived in the dorms for nearly a year at university.
Before you went to Kamloops, did you have any access to your culture at all?
No. There were a lot of miscommunications with my heritage. A lot of folks had expressed that I was of Métis descent. Although there may be Métis descent in me, when I look back at my family roots there's Ojibway, there's Cree, there’s Anishinaabe, there’s a lot more than just Métis. And historically there was a lot of Indigenous folks who began to identify as Métis because it gave them more rights than Indigenous folks. So it’s quite possible my family’s done the same thing back then.
But it’s also quite tricky because my great grandmother was in a residential school. After that experience she didn’t speak about culture. She taught my grandmother English, sent her to church. My grandmother actually wanted to go to residential school. But my great grandmother had said no. And when the Indian agents came around what they saw was a brown girl who could speak English and goes to church. No need to go to residential school, she’s already been assimilated. Unfortunately the intergenerational trauma trickle down. My mother was put into foster care, and then I was put into foster care.
How do you identify now?
I identify as an Oji-Cree person because it’s Ojibwe Cree in the area of Manitoba that I occupy and the genealogy of my family there is like Oji-Cree, Anishinaabe. Unfortunately I don't know my father, but I've been told he was Oji-Cree, Anishinaabe.
But in my time in care they would send me to Métis events, ask me if I wanted to go canoe with the Katzie First Nation or the Stó:lō Nation. They told me that was my culture when in actuality I have no claim, I’m an uninvited guest. I’m a settler here via diaspora. They treat indigeneity as pan-indigeneity, that everyone had the exact same culture and language, when in actuality that’s not true at all.
What could the governments of Manitoba or British Columbia have done differently that would have prevented you and your siblings from going into care?
My mother was never given the support she needed to succeed as a mother. She had moved to Vancouver on her own, pregnant with me. It’s hard living in a new city, she was 18 and very difficult, very young. I believe if there was support for my mother, who had no idea how to raise a kid, that the situation may have been better. It’s really unfortunate that there those tools are only being implemented now. And they’re not being implemented in a way that is sustainable.
What tools that are implemented now that would have helped?
[Lu’ma Native Housing] have units where a family moves in, an entire family. And the parents get coaching and support in raising the children. Sts'ailes Nation by Agassiz, they have the same method where they have houses where they move in a family. They implement support, cultural resources, work on teaching the parents how to be parents and it’s very community based in those situations, folks who have no idea what it's like to be in a family learn what it’s like to be a family.
When we look at my mother, she had been in foster care, she didn’t know what a family looked like, she didn’t know what a family felt like, she didn't know what her family was meant to be. When you provide support in a way that is culturally safe, emotionally sustainable, you build deeper connections that go for longer term. So when I see systems like that it just makes sense to me, right? They don’t have to worry about if they’re going to have a roof over their heads. Or if they’re going to have enough to eat — that’s going to be there.
When you say tools like these are not being implemented in a sustainable way, do you mean because there are so few spaces that do this?
They’re so, so, so few. And sometimes when folks have tried to do it, they’ve done it in a very hand-holding approach where they’re there all the time, where the parents have been like, ‘OK we don't have to parent our kids, these people are going to do it.’ Which hasn’t worked. And won’t work. It needs to be in a way that is compatible with the family and with the parents.
They’re also few and far between because there is this villainization of the parents. The parents of foster kids are so extremely villainized and so removed from the care plan for these Indigenous children. In my culture there is an attachment. There’s our belly button, it’s our centre. And it’s very much so, like relationship to the land, but also relationship to our parents. The parents that brought us into the world. The parents that are responsible for giving us our sacred teachings. When you remove that, you’re removing an aspect of cultural sovereignty.
How could the ministry have improved your time in care?
The ministry could have listened to me. As a young person, I was aware of what didn’t work and what worked. And I recognize that sometimes there aren’t enough resources and support out there. But a lot of emotional, spiritual and physical abuse could have been stopped if they had listened to me. The ministry has a very copy-and-paste idea of needs versus wants. There’s a lot of grey areas where what they perceive as wants are needs. And that’s only been recognized now as cultural identity.
Things that I had said to the social workers weren’t in the file. So I believe, in regard to accountability, youth should have the ability to self-report. Every month the foster parents submitted a report. So if a youth had an opportunity to see the report or acknowledge the report, or write their own report, I believe the type of care that a young person would get would be quite different. Because then there is a hard paper trail.
You were really able to advocate for yourself in a way that I don’t know that I would have been able to do at that age. Do you find that that’s unique?
I wasn’t able to advocate the way I can now. The ways I was advocating back then were out of desperation, like an animal cornered. It felt like life or death. I didn’t use physical violence. I didn’t smash walls, I didn’t slam doors. A lot of my advocating for myself was in a whisper. That vulnerability was listened to you. I think that’s not the only way it should be listened to. If there is a reaction out of anger, if there is a hole punched through the wall, why? Why is that happening? This is trauma that’s happening. And how one expresses themselves through trauma should not be punished.
What does the ideal child welfare system look like to you for Indigenous people in Canada?
There is some good, some programming, some teachings. But we need to scrap a lot of the colonial ideas, the bureaucracy, the loopholes that protect social workers and the government from accountability and responsibility. If the government decides to take a young person from their home and be responsible for the young person, when the government fails they need to be accountable for that.
What does accountability look like?
The government hasn’t been accountable. We look at Cindy Blackstock’s case against Canada’s discriminatory funding, and Cindy Blackstock, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the children have won five times. Canada has won zero times. We need to look at how the fact that accountability is now being forced. In a year Canada is going to say ‘look how great we are, look what we did’ and everybody, except for us, will forget that it took five legal actions for them to be accountable.
The accountability process from the government is non-existent. Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government spent $110,000 on lawyers to dispute a $6,000 dental surgery for an Indigenous youth. That money to the lawyers could have funded this surgery 18 times over. The government is not about supporting Indigenous folks and their health. It’s about destroying it, still to this day. If they actually cared about reconciliation they would put some action in that. They would actually be doing things preemptively instead of fighting against Indigenous health care. It's so clear to me about Canada's systemic racism to this day.
What would accountability look like for the B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Development?
MCFD has to acknowledge the number of youth in care who die every year. In 2016 the statistic was every three days — 120 youth. That’s a hard statistic. It’s hard to process. It’s hard to hold. It needs to be able to name its faults, it’s flaws, and then do what’s necessary so that those don’t happen again and again. It’s become a pattern of misgiving and misinformation and abuse that MCFD is participating in. It’s very hard when they apologize for something. Are we going to hear it another 200 times? Or are you going to do something about it?
I’m fed up. They need to remove a lot of the staff who have been there for a while, look at creating more sustainable positions. They need to talk about nation to nation. I’m sure they're doing some work on it now but it needs to be quicker. It needs to be so much faster.
I know there are so many amazing social workers. Those folks need to be lifted up, given higher positions in order to support their practice. There’s a lot of social workers who have some shitty practice who are getting away with it.
It’s unlikely anything will change overnight. What could be done right now to help the families and kids in care?
I remember asking to go home, to visit my home territories when I was a teenager. I think there needs to be access to that. I was told there was no financial support for that, there was no resources for that. It was against policy. We need to remove “against policy.” When Indigenous youth are asking to go to their home community to reconnect with their culture, that should be applauded, instead of being told that there are no resources for it.
And now, looking back at my experiences, I don’t have my passport because they said that that was my own responsibility. I don’t have a health care card because they said it’s my financial duty to get it when I had requested it at 16. We need to be looking at implementing ways that provide young folks access to things when they age out, when they want to.
What gives you hope?
[Minister of Advanced Education] Melanie Mark. Dylan Cohen. Jess Boon. Rachel Mallick. Meredith Graham. Vancouver Foundation. Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks. All of these organizations that are youth-led. All of these initiatives that are focused on advocating for change. What gives me hope is also the way that Discourse Media and The Tyee have been reporting on youth in care in a way that is equitable and shifts the narrative in a way that is healthy to youth in care.
What gives me hope is that there are so many former youth in care that are in postsecondary now. The numbers are growing and we’re occupying space, we’re getting an education so we can have access to jobs that were gate-keeped from us. We have lived experiences that make us experts, but we can’t get the positions unless we have a certification. Now we’re getting the certification. When we get those positions some really big change is gonna happen.
This story was modified on May 28, 2018 at 12:45 p.m.
On Wednesday: In part seven, a look at the critically important work of bringing an Indigenous perspective to child welfare, and what’s being done across Canada.