Part four of a four part series
SAGKEENG FIRST NATION, Manitoba – At a gathering of traditional healers and spiritual leaders in the Turtle Lodge earlier this summer, the national tragedy of more than 582 murdered and missing First Nations women became a focus for discussion and prayers.
Several people spoke of relatives missing in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton, and along the Highway of Tears. It seems to be happening everywhere.
Chief Donovan Fontaine said at least four women from the local community were missing – one six months pregnant – and later found murdered, some dumped along highways.
The situation has become a national outrage for women’s organizations, political leaders and traditional healers throughout Canada. There’s no question in their minds that Canada’s discriminatory policies toward indigenous peoples have played a major role.
The sad history of widespread physical and sexual abuse at residential schools has profoundly damaged Native communities, but so have other institutions like Canada’s foster care system.
“The violence happening to our women and children is destroying the fabric of our culture and communities,” said Dave Courchene, Anishinabe founder of the Turtle Lodge and a former school superintendent who gave up his career to follow a spiritual path nearly two decades ago.
“Right now there are 4,600 Native children in foster care in southern Manitoba who need a cultural and spiritual connection to their identity and families. Without that, they get lost. We have to make our children a priority and put them back in the center of our lives.”
Courchene helps many troubled youth and families who come to Turtle Lodge for guidance, ceremonies and a spiritual connection to their cultures. Seeking hope and healing, they participate in sweat lodge, fasts and seasonal ceremonies. Over time, they find solace and a spiritual family to support their recovery.
During the gathering, a chief from a remote community arrived asking Courchene to make an emergency visit to help – there were no more children left in his community after social services had taken them all.
What happens to children raised by non-Native strangers under government custody is directly linked to their vulnerability for exploitation and abuse.
“The child welfare system is implicated when we realize that many of the missing women we are talking about are not actually women at all, but girls in the care of the provincial ministries for child and family development,” said Angela MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.
Others familiar with Canada’s foster care system complain it is badly broken judging from the disparities and discrimination embedded in the system that leads to the loss of First Nations children from their families.
“A single Native mother on welfare with one child receives about $580 per month to live on. But if social services takes her child and gives it to a non-Native family, they get $1,000 per month to care for the child,” said Cherry Smiley of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network. “Instead of policies designed to keep families together, we’re dealing with rules and regulations that break our families apart.”
Manitoba Deputy Premier Eric Robinson told the gathering of traditional healers that the issue is national disgrace in Canada.
“It’s a state of emergency and we have to take some action. The national tragedy of our stolen sisters knows no provincial boundaries, and urgently requires a national strategy.”
Robinson later recalled his family history and his own sexual abuse by a priest while in residential school for three years at Jack River School in Norway House, Manitoba.
“My father was a student at one of these places, went there for seven or eight years, never learned anything more than how to write his name, but he sure became a good farmhand. My mother went at the age of 3. She came out when she was 18 to a world of alcoholism and drug abuse, and she died alone on the streets of Winnipeg at the age of 31 when I was 11 years old,” he told CBC News.
More than 150,000 First Nations children were taken from their families and forced to attend one of 130 government and church-operated residential schools designed to assimilate aboriginal children into Canadian society.
Established in the 1870s throughout Canada, residential schools were commonly overcrowded and lacked medical care and proper sanitation which resulted in widespread deaths from tuberculosis for the first 40 years. In one school, as many as 69 percent of students died from tuberculosis, according to government records.
The last residential school closed in 1996, but the impacts on First Nations are long-lasting. Rampant physical and sexual abuse created an intergenerational cycle of trauma that continues to affect families today.
A class-action lawsuit filed by residential school survivors led to the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which began national public hearings in June to shed light on horrific mistreatment carried out under Canadian policies.
Following a $1.9 billion Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement with survivors, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology in June 2008. In his remarks, he acknowledged the schools were intended to “kill the Indian in the child.”
In March, Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation chaired the International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Children and Youth in Detention, Custody, Foster-Care and Adoption in North Vancouver where leaders prepared recommendations for United Nations review.
There is a documented statistical link between the high numbers of indigenous children in foster care (and other forms of custody) and the legacy of the residential schools. This intergenerational trauma is one of the most destructive legacies of the residential school policies, the report said.
Experts agreed that discrimination, economic inequalities, and racially discriminatory policies continue to play a major role in the disproportionate placement of indigenous youth in detention, custody, foster care and adoption.
They cited many examples of discrimination including: Defining suitable households for care-giving primarily based on economic factors, both in justifications for removal of children and in determining placements for children in foster or adoptive homes; significant disparities in funding levels and services provided to Native communities; border security laws that fail to acknowledge the specific needs and rights of indigenous children and youth; and blaming the over-representation of indigenous youth in custody and care on Native peoples themselves, rather than on Canada’s system and policies.
Experts recognized that the cycle of institutionalization for Native people often begins with foster care, continues on to youth detention programs and then to custody in the adult criminal justice system. This cycle is often repeated for the children of incarcerated adults.
“In any discussion of solutions to these problems, issues of racism within law enforcement and the overarching reality of colonization and residential school are what need to be addressed and redressed,” MacDougall said.
“The women and children affected are not forgotten, because the family members, the community members, and the activists who have been working for all these years will not give up.”
Editor’s note: This series, originally set at 4, concludes with Part 5 next week summarizing resources for families and national efforts to stop the violence against women and children. It will also examine Canada’s response to this human rights emergency and intervention by the United Nations.