Complaint alleges racism in Quebec youth protection

Derogatory comments made about Inuit mothers by staff at a provincial facility
Photo: blogocram / Flickr
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“She must have burnt cells from drinking too much.”

This is how a social worker at Batshaw Youth and Family Services referred to an Inuit mother whose child is in state care, according to documents obtained by Ricochet. The Batshaw employee was in charge of helping the mother and her child navigate Quebec’s youth protection system.

In a May 20 complaint filed against Batshaw, an advocate for the Inuit mother questioned how the social worker could build relationships with Indigenous clients given the blatant prejudice she displayed.

Indigenous youth account for 52 per cent of all children in state care, despite making up only 7 per cent of Canada’s child population.

“If this is how the social worker speaks about the mother, how is she treating the family,” the complaint reads. “The mother in question is an Inuit woman whose first language is Inuktitut, and is also fluent in French and English. I met her on a few occasions and can confirm we communicated well and understood each other easily.”

The complaint was filed by a family care worker at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, which often helps women in difficult situations try to start a new life with their kids. It details a culture of derogatory attitudes toward Indigenous mothers.

Batshaw Youth and Family Services serves families based in and around Montreal as well as clients from Inuit villages along Quebec’s northern coast. The organization is overseen by the Ministry of Health and Social Services.

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“On another occasion, a social worker stated, based on her personal point of view, that an Inuk mother we both work with ‘obviously needs to be medicated,’” the complaint reads, adding that Quebec’s “Department of Youth Protection is supposed to intervene with families in need of help and support, not put them down when they get frustrated. In this sense, these comments are not only unacceptable; they are disturbing, disrespectful, racist and unprofessional.

“I understand that not every social worker speaks and behaves this way with the families they intervene with, which is appreciated.”

A representative from the ministry was not immediately available for comment. But the complaint does say that, in some instances, social workers apologized for and corrected their behaviour.

“No more reports, we need action.”

However, Batshaw has also resisted repeated demands that it create a clinical intervention group to help its workers better serve Indigenous families — Indigenous children are significantly overrepresented in Canada’s youth protection system.

Indigenous youth account for 52 per cent of all children in state care, despite making up only 7 per cent of Canada’s child population.

These jarring statistics, along with incidents like those detailed in the complaint, led a network of Indigenous community groups to propose the creation of a clinical intervention group in 2019. They met with representatives from Batshaw, who shot down the proposal.

Clinical intervention groups are fairly common in state care. They bring together a team of experts to better serve children and families in crisis. Batshaw has them for domestic violence and sexual assault.

But two sources who met with Batshaw say they were told that if a clinical intervention group were created for Indigenous youth, they’d have to create groups for other minorities as well. At another meeting with Batshaw last month, a lawyer representing families in Nunavik reiterated the demand for a clinical intervention group.

Another meeting between Batshaw and Indigenous stakeholders is scheduled for Wednesday.

This meeting comes after reports Saturday that an Indigenous teenager under the care of Batshaw was confined in a room without windows or access to his cell phone because he may have been exposed to COVID-19. News of the child’s confinement surfaced when his teacher met with him to deliver school supplies last week.

The teacher was so alarmed at the child’s mental state that he reached out to the Montreal Indigenous Community Network, a group of organizations that advocate for youth in care. An evaluation by Quebec’s public health department later found that the child presented little to no risk of having contracted COVID-19.

A clinical intervention group would have been able to step in and ensure the child wasn’t being held in a basement room without any contact with the outside world. Sources say the teenager was released after his story was shared across social media Saturday.

“An intervention group could have come up with a solution that didn’t involve locking a child in a dark basement room,” said Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. “This isn’t a new or recent problem and it’s been well documented in the Viens Commission (into systemic racism in Quebec), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and most recently the Laurent Commission.”

The Laurent Commission led to a scathing report, released last month by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, which found that some Indigenous children in Batshaw’s care weren’t even going to school and others were discouraged from speaking their language.

In previous interviews, representatives from Batshaw have said they’re implementing the recommendations outlined by the human rights commission.

“No more reports, we need action,” said Nakuset. “We’re talking about children’s well-being here.”

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet. Sign up below for weekly newsletters from the front lines of journalism.
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