When Annie lost custody of her daughters three years ago, she decided to turn her life around so she could once more be a mother to them. But like other Inuit mothers working to regain custody of their children through the Batshaw Youth and Family Centre, she has found a path to reunification that looks more like a wall, one built by settlers and ill-designed to meet the needs of her community.

Despite significant progress made by Annie in the past year and a half, she is no closer to regaining custody of her two girls, says Larivière, a support worker at the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM). Both Annie and Larivière are pseudonyms to protect the identities of those involved, who fear repercussions for themselves and other families for speaking out.

In Annie’s case, the separation between mother and daughter can be measured in the brief hours they have together during visits and the words they are permitted to speak to each other. Under the supervision of a Batshaw social worker, Annie has repeatedly been told not to speak to her children in her native language of Inuktitut, says Larivière, a pattern that persists in Montreal’s youth protection system.

Until the organization can provide culturally competent services to people like Annie, Indigenous leaders say they will stop working with Batshaw.

In recent years, Batshaw has been accused of racism against Indigenous people using their services.

“I’ve noticed with a lot of the Inuit moms that I work with, the social workers talk to them as if they were children,” says Larivière. “They look down on them.”

Describing Annie as “strong-headed woman” and “good with the kids,” Larivière says that the mother has stood up for her right to speak the language of her ancestors, but when it comes to reclaiming motherhood, she may have to wait until Batshaw finally recognizes her attempts to get back on her feet.

Until the organization can provide culturally competent services to people like Annie, Indigenous leaders say they will stop working with Batshaw. Citing what they call years of failure to implement recommendations to improve the treatment of Indigenous children in care and their families, the NWSM has decided to cut all ties with Batshaw and its parent organization, the Montreal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (CIUSSS-ODIM).

Withdrawing outstretched hands

“We do not see any need at this time to further participate in meetings that produce practically no systemic changes,” the NWSM wrote in a letter to Batshaw last month.

The letter, obtained by Ricochet, explains that the NWSM and a team of researchers are withdrawing “in light of the absence of significant, tangible and necessary institutional measures which we have recommended and pressed for over the years to address the needs of Indigenous people.”

In 2019 researchers from Concordia University and the NWSM released a report, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, on Batshaw’s practices with Indigenous families. Indigenous people reported feeling stereotyped by employees as “those people” while upper management admitted that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action were “not on the radar.” Batshaw employees reported the need for more training and education, policy changes, and Indigenous representation among staff.

Complaints about discriminatory remarks by Batshaw social workers were omitted from CIUSSS-ODIM meeting minutes in May and June.

Batshaw has not respected the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations or ones that NWSM directly proposed, says Nakuset, executive director of the NWSM. Batshaw also has yet to implement any of the 29 calls to action related to Indigenous youth protection from the provincial Viens Commission.

In a statement sent by email, a spokesperson for the CIUSSS-ODIM said the organization is in the process of implementing the recommendations of the Viens and Laurent Commissions, and is “working with several authorities so that these recommendations can be implemented concretely and in a coordinated manner in our organization and across the province. An action plan is also being developed for the deployment of these national recommendations in our CIUSSS.”

For the past decade, the shelter has tried a collaborative approach, Nakuset says. The NWSM has proposed programs and provided tools like cultural manuals for non-Indigenous foster parents who take children into their care, but she says that Batshaw has repeatedly turned down requests for meaningful collaboration and cultural plans for Indigenous children, who are overrepresented in the child welfare system.

“We keep creating these programs and handing them on a silver platter, and it feels like we’re getting really close but then when we are actually sitting down at the table none of the concerns that we see are being brought forward,” says Nakuset.

In the letter to Batshaw, she also raises the concern that complaints about discriminatory remarks by Batshaw social workers were omitted from CIUSSS-ODIM meeting minutes in May and June.

Silenced and unschooled

In Annie’s case, some of the discrimination she faces takes shape in the words she is allowed to speak. To the NWSM, dissuading parents from speaking to their children in their native languages constitutes systemic racism in linguistic form.

Inuit mothers are often afraid to stand up for their right to speak Inuktitut because of the power social workers wield over them, Nakuset explains. Social workers do not typically speak the language or have translators present and incorrectly assume that Inuit families revert to their native tongue to plot escape or suicide.

Attempts to silence Annie mirror reports that prompted an investigation by Quebec’s Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission. The results were released last spring, with the commission finding that informal pressure from CIUSSS-ODIM staff dissuaded Inuit youth from freely speaking in Inuktitut.

Inuit youth were not only being denied the right to express themselves. They were being deprived of a formal education too.

The commission recommended the creation of cultural safety plans and opportunities for Inuit youth to socialize with each other in their language. It also called for access to interpreters to remove cultural and linguistic barriers, echoing the Viens Commission.

During the investigation, the commission discovered that Inuit youth were not only being denied the right to express themselves. They were being deprived of a formal education too.

Inuit youth, many of whom receive an English-language education in Nunavik, face administrative hurdles to accessing the same kind of schooling outside the region. The reluctance of youth protection services to take the necessary steps to get the youth into English-language classrooms perpetuates an “exclusion of Inuit children in residential
care from the formal education system as well as a chronic violation of their right to education and to the full development of their human and cultural potential,” wrote the commission.

New chapters of exclusion

As autumn kicks off with debates over language during hearings on Bill 96, which will make provincial laws on French language use stricter, Nakuset is worried about the impact the bill will have on those who are already reluctant to enter hospitals or engage with police officers.

Last week, she testified that such aggressive assimilation measures would further alienate and exclude Indigenous people in urban areas of Quebec and discourage them from seeking essential services, possibly even in life-and-death situations.

“We already know that the people are leaving services that they actually need before Bill 96,” says Nakuset. “What do you think is going to happen afterwards?”

As Quebec society debates how best to protect its own distinct culture, Indigenous communities await cultural safety measures of their own in the youth protection system and beyond.

In the meantime, Annie is holding down a stable job and moving into a bigger apartment. It has a dedicated play area for her daughters, for whenever they are reunited under the same roof.

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.