A historic agreement was recently signed between the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw and the Quebec government that will allow the First Nation to administer its own system of child protection. This is a major step, with the autonomously-run Système d’intervention d’autorité Atikamekw taking over control of child services from the provincial ministry. Quebec’s minister of Native Affairs has hailed the agreement as “reconciliation in action.”
As a foreign system imposed on Indigenous nations, the Canadian system of child welfare introduces many practices that do not fit into Indigenous concepts of childhood, parenthood, and families. For example, when considering adoption and custom adoption in Indigenous communities, the system employs a very Euro-Western conception of adoption, rooted in the notion of nuclear family, which does not necessarily fit into Indigenous worldviews of kinship and child rearing.
With the arrival of settlers on Turtle Island, and the subsequent extension of colonial policies on to Indigenous territories, existing systems of child rearing were disrupted. In particular, the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop separated children from their homes, families, communities and cultures and started a pattern of child removal from Indigenous parents that remains to this day. The term the Sixties Scoop refers to the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands.
Assimilation not education
The “Indian Residential Schools” were developed to eliminate what Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent of Indian Affairs, called "the Indian problem." They were established in locations remote from Indigenous territories to separate children from their families at a very young age.
The assumption was that European civilization and Christian religion were superior to Indigenous cultures, which were perceived by the colonists as savage and brutal. Between 1831 and 1996, 139 care institutions were established. They “educated” approximately 150,000 children from successive generations under the auspices of the Church and, later, in coordination with the Canadian federal government.
In 2009 the Canadian government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to expose the legacy of residential schools. However, the child welfare system essentially took over from the residential school system when responsibility for care of Indigenous children and families was transferred to the provinces.
By the 1970s, 10 per cent of Indigenous children were in care, as compared to 1 per cent of non-Indigenous children; 70 per cent of those children were placed into non-Indigenous homes in which their heritage was denied.
Currently, Indigenous children constitute almost 5 per cent of the child population in the country, however they account for 30-40 per cent of the children in the child welfare system.
A growing number of First Nations, Inuit and Métis have developed and gained gradual control their own child welfare services. A number of different models exist across the country that allow these organizations (both on reserve and in urban centres) greater control over child welfare services.
However, despite the successes of agencies such as the Conseil de la Nation Atikamekw, and the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action released in 2015, there is still much work to be done in reducing the number of Indigenous children in care and ensuring that Indigenous peoples have control over the ways in which we care for our children.
A current pilot research project that is a partnership between the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, Concordia University and the child welfare services for English-speaking Montreal (CIUSS-ODIM) has highlighted the need for better training of child welfare workers who remain ignorant of the horrendous legacy of these government systems destroying the fabric of Indigenous families and cultures. We need to ensure that child welfare agencies are held accountable to the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action so that these histories are not perpetuated.