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How We All Can Help Improve Indigenous Child Welfare Today

Part 13 of a series. Big structural change takes time. Improving lives of kids in care doesn’t have to.

Katie Hyslop 20 Jun

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. This series is supported by Vancouver Foundation. Supporters neither influence nor endorse the particular content of the reporting. Other publications wishing to publish Katie’s work can contact editor Barry Link at .

Margo Greenwood knows some non-Indigenous people don’t want to think about their government’s role in using child welfare services to take Indigenous children from their families, resulting in forced assimilation and cultural genocide. She’s met them.

“I have engaged with people who really don’t want to know any of this, or who already know everything,” said Greenwood, professor of First Nations Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.

But she’s also met people who want to know and help bring change. They just don’t know where to begin.

“I was sitting on a national committee and we were talking about inequities in Canada and the health of Indigenous people,” she said. “And everybody in the room was committed to doing something to begin to address inequities in some small way.”

“This one lady looked way down this boardroom table at me — I was the only Indigenous person in the room — and said to me, ‘Margo, we really want to do something but we don’t know how.’ And I looked back at her and I said, ‘How would you? If you never learned about Indigenous people and their history, as, for example articulated in the Truth and Reconciliation report, how would you know?’”

This series has outlined needed changes in child welfare, from adequate funding to Indigenous jurisdiction to real government commitment to action.

But improvement is also going to take a fundamental change in how every Canadian engages with the reality that Canada sits on territory that was already claimed when the settlers got here. And the relationship between settler and Indigenous peoples has been deteriorating ever since.

The good news is most Canadians are like those people Greenwood met at the national committee. In 2016, an Environics poll found 84 per cent of Canadians believed that individual Canadians have a role to play in bringing about reconciliation, and 64 per cent felt strongly that we all have a role.

The Tyee asked Indigenous people interviewed for this series what their ideal Indigenous child welfare system would look like. And, while we’re doing the hard work of implementing a new way of doing Indigenous child welfare, what could be done right now to help Indigenous families and kids in the current system?

Some ideas overlapped, or emphasized what’s already been said: offer Indigenous control, seek prevention, stop taking kids into care altogether.

But other actions, some big and some small, don’t just need government to move forward. They need the buy-in, co-operation and good faith effort from everyone in Canada.

Learning about Indigenous culture through art

Greenwood and colleague Sarah de Leeuw, associate professor in UNBC’s Northern Medical Program and geography faculty, have one such idea. They want social workers, teachers, medical professionals and anyone who engages with Indigenous families to familiarize themselves with Indigenous culture in a safe way for all involved through Indigenous art.

Books written by contemporary Indigenous authors, works by Indigenous playwrights, or paintings and carvings by Indigenous visual artists all offer a chance to engage with Indigenous culture, they say.

The key is not just to change the laws in Canada, Greenwood says, but people’s consciousness. “Sometimes people need to be touched in their heart and their head in order to create the kind of change that we need to see,” she said.

Engaging with Indigenous art is a safe way for non-Indigenous people who work within the government system to think critically about the racism and anti-Indigenous messages they have absorbed, either through their work or in society, de Leeuw said.

“I don’t think we can approach this in a way that’s going to make people defensive. And I think people feel very defensive very quickly, unfortunately.”

The cultural engagement needs to start early, they say.

“It’s a matter of getting into kindergarten curriculum and making British Columbians and Canadians understand colonial violence,” said de Leeuw. It’s too early to tell if B.C.’s efforts at putting more Indigenous content into the curriculum goes far enough, she added.

Bridging the gulf between communities

Change won’t come if we don’t build relationships and partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, says Marlyn Bennett, assistant professor in the Master of Social Work Based in Indigenous Knowledges program at the University of Manitoba.

“I think about the belief that non-Indigenous people are not welcome in Indigenous communities,” said Bennett. “No one’s really tried. There’s no gates to First Nations communities.”

We could start by inviting people into each other’s communities, she said.

“If you could invite non-Indigenous people into Indigenous communities, they would get a better understanding of how that community operates with the limited resources that they have,” she said. “Because there’s always these stereotypes that Indigenous people get things for free, when in reality that’s not the case.”

“And it’s also important to encourage Indigenous people to leave their communities and learn more about other communities in Canada and other services that are available. Conceivably some of those services could be delivered in First Nations communities.”

Billie Allan from the University of Victoria’s school of social work says informed non-Indigenous people could make a big difference just by speaking up when they hear falsehoods about Indigenous people repeated.

“Interrupting the stories that people have, and interrupting them with their kids, with their grannies or their aunties and uncles, around dining room tables, on the sides of hockey games, at the Tim Hortons,” she said.

“A lot of it is asking, ‘how did you come to know that?’ ‘How did you come to think that about Indigenous people?’ ‘Where did you learn that?’” she said. “Really starting to unpack the knowledge that people have and where it comes from.”

These kinds of assumptions directly impact how Indigenous people are treated not only by social workers, but in the classroom, grocery store, doctor’s office and even on the sidewalk, she said.

Keeping children connected

Shelly Johnson’s grandparents recognized the turmoil in her family was a result of her father’s residential school experience. Instead of calling child welfare, her grandparents stepped in to raise Johnson and her brother for five years starting when Johnson was 10.

Johnson’s parents used those five years to address their issues, and her grandparents gave her and her brother back.

It’s a move that saved her life, she said, and led to where she is today: an associate professor at Thompson Rivers University; the first Canada Research Chair in Indigenizing Higher Education; mother to adult children with post-secondary educations; and a Saulteaux person connected to her culture.

“They saved our lives, because if the ministry had come into our family, nobody would be giving us back five years later,” Johnson said.

“I have three older cousins that didn’t get the benefit of living with the grandparents when their parents’ relationship ended, and they’re all dead today. They all went through the child welfare system, they all went through the correctional system, and they all died.”

Johnson isn’t interested in indigenizing the current child welfare systems, which she says are doing exactly what they were intended to do when created nearly 70 years ago — to maintain control over Indigenous people.

But if she could make one policy change to the system right now, it would be to ensure that the person who alerts child welfare to possible abuse or neglect of an Indigenous child would be the first one considered to care for them until things can be improved at home.

“Most times it could be family members, teachers, whoever,” she said. In her experience as a social worker, she added, when permanent custody of a child is granted, it’s usually to the person who contacted child welfare services in the first place.

Understanding — and honouring — our treaty responsibilities

With the exception of British Columbia, where the majority of the land is unceded First Nations territory, everyone living in Canada today is considered a treaty person. We all have rights and responsibilities outlined in one or more of the 56 historical treaties signed between Indigenous people and the British Crown.

However only some of us have had those treaty rights fully recognized and implemented. While every treaty is different, the Crown’s overarching promises to meet the educational, housing, health and resource development needs of Indigenous people have not been fulfilled.

Resource extraction developments on Indigenous land often happen without consultation, and the royalties are not shared. Education and child welfare services on reserves have received lower funding than the same services off-reserve and, despite a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, it’s still not clear if the discrimination well end.

Indigenous people in Canada are twice as likely to live in substandard housing and eight times as likely to be homeless.

Not honouring those treaties has led to overwhelming poverty in many Indigenous families. Half of all status First Nations kids in Canada live in poverty, while 30 per cent of non-status First Nations and a quarter of Inuit and Métis children live in poverty.

On reserves the poverty level is even higher. The 2015 census found more than 80 per cent of reserves had a median income below the poverty line.

As explored in part two of the series, poverty is often seen as neglect and used as a reason to take Indigenous children out of their family homes. While Indigenous people have lost out on the treaties, settlers’ communities have become wealthy through resources extracted on Indigenous lands.

“Settler societies have to recognize that they have benefited from these treaty relationships that were made,” Bennett said.

“What are treaties? They are agreements between nations. And when settlers first came here, Indigenous people were recognized as nations, and only a nation can sign a treaty. We have to remember that there are treaties across this country that recognize an agreement to share. And yet there has been no sharing that has happened for Indigenous people.”

Fulfilling those treaties would go a long way to ending the poverty, and drastically reducing the number of children taken into care.

Community hubs for services

Scott Clark has been working on one idea to help kids in care for nearly a decade. He’s convinced once a single example is in place, it will be replicated in neighbourhoods across the country.

What is it? Put community services — from housing to health care to child welfare to after-school homework and meal programs — all in one building in every neighbourhood, a concept known as place-based services.

In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it’s already under way. Our Place, a collaboration between Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, the Vancouver Park Board, Vancouver School Board, Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement Society, City of Vancouver and the Ministry of Children and Family Development — to name just a few of the organizations involved — provides services to children and families in a neighbourhood primarily home to low-income Indigenous, single-parent and new immigrant families.

The idea is a one-stop shop for services families need to thrive and be healthy. Where normally a family would have to spend the whole day on transit to access a doctor, after school programs, parenting classes or free meals and recreation programs; Our Place strives to meet every family’s needs in one building close to their homes.

Clark, who is executive director of ALIVE and vice-president of the Northwest Indigenous Council, representing non-status and urban Indigenous people in B.C., would like to see child welfare services delivered through place-based community hubs like Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, too.

It’s not an original idea. In fact Clark says it was briefly implemented in Vancouver under the provincial NDP government of 1972-3.

“They started to implement neighbourhood resource boards, and each of the neighbourhoods would have representation on the Vancouver Resource Board. They were starting to pool provincial resources and civic resources at a neighbourhood level and having planning councils to develop their service delivery model.”

Clark’s place-based model would not mean Indigenous jurisdiction over child welfare right away, especially as Our Place delivers services to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

But Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the First Nations Health Council in B.C., says that’s OK for right now.

“We need to heal our people that are in pain. We need to help children grow up in healthy families that are capable of coping with the stresses of day-to-day life, and achieve success in education. Achieve learning who they are and where they come,” he said, referring to learning their identity as Indigenous people, their language and their culture.

“So the work that ALIVE and the Ray-Cam [Co-operative] Centre is doing is much needed work to help heal our vulnerable children and families. That work is necessary.”

A return to traditional models of family care

Healthy communities don’t necessarily need big jurisdictional changes to restore traditional models of care, Kelly noted. He wants to see a return to respect for the matriarchy in Indigenous communities, which used to be responsible for child welfare before the settlers intervened.

Kelly saw it happen in his own Coast Salish community growing up, even in his own family.

“When parents were killed and they left children, the matriarchs — the grandmothers and the aunties — got together and said, ‘OK family, who’s in the best situation to take care of these children?’ And the family decided. There was no ministry social worker, there was no family court judge. There was no government intervention whatsoever,” he said.

“But we can do that without actually having formal recognition, if we begin to advocate for change in the current law, and we begin to change the model of taking decisions about keeping children safe and our families together. It doesn’t require outright recognition of jurisdiction. What it requires is sharing the responsibility for decision making to protect children and to keep families together.”

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, wants to see a return to child welfare models like that, too, but in a more formal way with government funding.

One roadblock is government funding requirements, which say any child welfare program must follow the provincial or territorial child welfare legislation to the letter.

“Expand that definition of eligible models to receive funding to include First Nations models, that can be done overnight,” Blackstock said.

“And the other element that they can do, is they need to ensure that they are providing flexible funding arrangements, that agency funding is not just based on a year-to-year funding agreement that zeroes out. That there is an allowance for multi-year planning so that agencies can actually develop programs [that] are sustainable, that will deal with the long-term redress of it.”

At the very least, settler governments can get out of the way as Indigenous communities seek to rebuild their families, their communities and their cultures.  [Tyee]

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