Residential schools live on through foster care system

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Caring Society, speaks in Ottawa on Jan. 26, 2016. Photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters.
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In Canada’s residential school system, Aboriginal children faced systematic assimilation and abuse after being removed from their families. Today, the same thing is happening to Aboriginal children in the foster care system.

The residential school system was established because the Canadian government believed Aboriginal children could only be successful if they assimilated into Canadian society. Children in residential schools were forced to adopt Christianity and speak English or French; they would receive severe punishment if they were caught practicing their traditions or speaking their language. They lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

I am a Native woman with heritage ties in Nanaimo and Tofino. In 2014, my three children were apprehended and placed in separate foster homes. At the time, my children had never been away from each other, and the experience was traumatizing for all of us.

Like children in residential schools, my children were forced to go to church and adopt Christianity. Whenever I did get to see them, they wore clothes two sizes too small. They were so stressed out that they lost patches of hair. Once when my two-year-old came to visit, I noticed a small dry patch on her shoulder. My daughter has eczema, so I mentioned the dry patch to the foster parents so that they could keep an eye on it. Two weeks later, my daughter came back for another visit and the little dry patch had nearly tripled in size. It was red, swollen, and oozing puss. The pain was so agonizing that my daughter was in tears.

In residential schools, most children spent 10 months out of the year away from their parents—although, some stayed year round. The children rarely, if ever, had a chance to see examples of normal family life. Since school activities were segregated by gender, brothers and sisters seldom saw each other. Also, the skills taught in residential schools did not help students adjust to life outside the schools, and many found it hard to re-enter society. When children returned home, they frequently felt like they no longer belonged. They did not have the knowledge to reconnect with their parents and many became ashamed of their culture.

I fought to get my children placed with family the entire time they were in foster care. It never happened. There was always an excuse: there weren’t enough rooms, they lived too far away, etc. It was a long, devastating fight to get all three of my children back home. I had to prove to the Ministry of Children and Family Development that no one on this earth could care for my children better than me by completing programs, counselling, and parenting courses. My children are home now, but my family is dealing with the aftermath of this awful experience.

According to Statistics Canada, Aboriginal children accounted for seven percent of all children in Canada in 2011, yet accounted for 48 percent of all foster children. There is a desperate need for more Aboriginal foster parents and social workers who are culturally aware of the importance of the values and teachings of our people. The Ministry of Children and Family Development needs to give preference to relatives when children are in need of out-of-home care, and place a higher priority on keeping siblings together whenever possible. In the words of Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan child welfare activist, “those are all things that child welfare can do something about.”