The establishment of the residential school system (RSS) in the 19th century was a dark stain of prejudice in Canadian history that continues to show its devastating effects today. Although these schools – which were created to assimilate the aboriginal peoples of Canada into European-Canadian society – no longer exist, the current circumstances in these communities are grievous as there are more First Nations children in care right now than that at the height of the RSS. A major study conducted in 2005 puts the number of First Nations children no longer living with their parents at 27,500. Further data produced since then solidly suggest that the numbers are continuously growing.
John Beaucage, a First Nations leader hired by the Ontario government to investigate the welfare of aboriginal children, reports that present-day conditions are distressing. Overwhelmingly, First Nations children take up the majority of the resources of the child welfare system on territorial, provincial, and federal levels. The statistics are staggering. Beaucage’s findings place the general First Nations population in Ontario at 2 per cent, and, yet, First Nations children make up 10 to 20 per cent of all those in provincial care. More alarmingly, reports from British Columbia show the aboriginal population sitting at about 8 per cent, while the children make up over 50 per cent of those in foster care.
“If anything, it’s an underestimation,” commented Nico Trocmé, director of McGill’s Centre for Research on Children and Families, about the data presented. He suggested that the data for aboriginal people is incomplete and not often kept up-to-date, and that it’s comparatively difficult to keep track of those who cannot be easily reached.
An examination of why the residential school system had such lasting adverse effects requires looking back several decades. The enactment of the Indian Act in 1867 and its amendment in 1884 made residential school attendance for status Indians under the age of 16 compulsory. This resulted in the forced relocation of aboriginal children from their families to severely underfunded designated schools far from their homes. At these schools, children were punished for speaking languages other than French or English, and for practicing non-Christian faiths. These policies seemed to attempt to strip the children of remaining ties to their own culture.
In addition, the conditions within the residential schools were far from what one would consider humane. These institutions were established under a severely underfunded system, and many students were forced into menial labour in order to maintain the basic operations of the institutions. Aside from under-trained teachers and inadequate education standards, the living and health conditions were deplorable. Doctors and nurses were seldom present, and, as a result, tuberculosis spread and became commonplace. For the most part, the schools made no effort in quarantining the infected students, and some even forced the critically ill to continue attending classes. Additionally, many of the aboriginal students were subjected to sexual, psychological, and physical abuse by school employees. The last residential school in Canada, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996. Yet even 15 years after the its closing, the system of support for the aboriginal community still can be improved upon.
“The [current state of welfare] is not well-covered by the media, and people predominately tend to turn a blind eye to it or are just generally not well-informed,” said Trocmé.
The “Millennium Scoop”
Beaucage coined the term “Millennium Scoop” to describe the current situation of aboriginal families who are pressured to send their children off reserves to receive better care. This stems from the large discrepancy in funding for child welfare services on reserves, which is provided by the federal government, versus funding for services off reserves, which is provided by the province. On-reserve care is currently receiving much less monetary support.
Trocmé states that the provision of funding by different sectors of the government, which creates such a discrepancy, makes it difficult for the aboriginal welfare system to coordinate itself. “The people providing the money [didn’t have much] to do with those spending it,” he said.
Though the term “Millennium Scoop” echoes the “Sixties Scoop” – the practice of forcibly placing Canadian aboriginal children into white families that began in the sixties – it is very important to realize that the two periods are more different than similar. In the sixties, aboriginal children sent off reserves were predominantly placed in European-Canadian homes. Nowadays, assimilation is no longer an option; a clear effort is being made to place First Nations children into other aboriginal homes when foster care is deemed necessary. Furthermore, it is estimated that about 90 per cent of the children in foster care do eventually find their way home.
Digging into the welfare system
For mainstream Canadian society, removing children from their homes is not the focus of the child welfare system. The primary concern has long since moved towards helping troubled families and providing resources devoted to prevention. Substance abuse programs and home visiting are examples of such support strategies. However, the First Nations community is only recently starting to benefit from such a push.
The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Canadian Human Rights Commission have all taken a stand towards the funding discrepancy. Collectively, they have filed a human rights complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal against the government of Canada, asking for equal-quality care on and off reserves. However, the federal government has tried its hardest to prevent the case from receiving a full hearing. To date, the case has lasted over four years, and one can only speculate on how much longer it will take for it to finally be resolved.
Unfortunately, as the legalities drag on, more and more First Nations children will be forced into institutions or put into foster care as their families are no longer deemed capable of caring for them. Even though the child welfare system for First Nations children is indeed beginning to move towards preventative efforts, the problem cannot be solved by simply restructuring the financial model being used.
The oppressive legacy of the RSS has taken away a lot of the first-hand knowledge of child-rearing from aboriginal parents. Furthermore, many experts and professionals find that family dysfunction is often rooted in poor health, poverty, and lack of various other basic needs such as access to clean water and resources – all issues significantly affecting Canada’s aboriginal population.
“It would only take a few months to restructure the federal spending system, but it would take years to fix the real causes of the adversities experienced by the First Nations families,” said Trocmé. “All the statistics I have seen suggest that preventative efforts are the most successful when it comes to solving this issue.”