As a new school year begins, we at BWSS remember the more than 150,000 Indigenous children who were sent to residential schools in Canada. Over 6,000 children never made it home. We also hold in our hearts the more than 20,000 Indigenous children who were taken from their families and communities as part of the Sixties Scoop and the Indigenous children who continue to be removed from their families’ care today. In this blog, we explore the continued colonial legacy of the child welfare system in British Columbia, its ongoing impact on Indigenous families, and the urgent need for widespread and sweeping decolonial transformation of the colonial child welfare system.
At BWSS, we recognize that child welfare agencies like BC’s Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) are a colonial tool used to separate and destroy Indigenous families and Nations. The province of BC, through MCFD, has long overextended its jurisdiction in the “protection” of Indigenous children, thereby denying Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over their families and communities.
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), “Canada’s child-welfare system has simply continued the assimilation that the residential school system started.” Further illustrating the severity of the crisis, the Chair of the TRC, Justice Murray Sinclair, has stated that “there are now more Indigenous children in the foster care system in Canada than there were in the residential school system.” This pattern has been dubbed by critics of the child-welfare system as the “Millennium Scoop.”
Statistics about the modern child welfare system are alarming. In Canada, Indigenous children are at a much higher risk of being apprehended from their families by the child welfare system than non-Indigenous children. According to Statistics Canada, 52.2 percent of children in the child welfare system in Canada are Indigenous, despite Indigenous children making up only 7.7 percent of the child population. The state of the child welfare system is similarly dire in British Columbia. The Tyee explains that “After decades of colonial policies that ripped Indigenous families apart, Indigenous parents and their kids are vastly overrepresented in B.C.’s child welfare system. Two-thirds of kids in care in B.C. are Indigenous, despite making up just 10 per cent of all children.”
The Relationship between the Child Welfare System and Gender-Based Violence
The impacts of the child welfare system on Indigenous children and youth are absolutely heartbreaking. Indigenous children and youth who have been apprehended face an increased risk of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual violence. Indigenous children and youth removed from their families by child welfare agencies can become targets of sexual predators. A report released in 2016 by the BC Representative for Children and Youth showed that Indigenous girls represent 61 percent of those who reported sexual violence in the child welfare system in BC. Tragically, Indigenous children and youth also die in the custody of child welfare agencies. We remember Noelle “Ellie” O’Soup, a member of Key First Nation in Saskatchewan living in BC who went missing from a group home in government care in May of 2021. According to media reports, her extended family members had been pleading for months with the Ministry to let them take in Noelle and her siblings. She was 14 years old when she was found deceased on May 1, 2022, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Indigenous women who were involved in the child welfare system as children are at a much higher risk of experiencing gender-based violence within their lifetimes. According to a recent report released by Statistics Canada, “About eight in ten (81%) Indigenous women who were ever under the legal responsibility of the government have experienced lifetime violent victimization”. Pamela Palmater, in her powerful article in Maclean’s magazine, describes the relationship between the child welfare system and gender-based violence as a “pipeline.” She states that “for Indigenous women and girls specifically, child welfare is also a pipeline to child exploitation, sex trafficking and murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.”
Fleeing Intimate Partner and Gender-Based Violence- the Risk of MCFD involvement
Ongoing colonial violence through child welfare agencies are directly linked to high rates of violence experienced among Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people. At BWSS, we know that one of the main barriers preventing Indigenous women from escaping violent situations and reporting abuse is fear of MCFD and other child welfare agencies. Mothers are fearful of having their children removed from their protection and placed into the foster care system if they seek anti-violence supports or if they access a transition or safe home. In our most recent research report “The fear is not simply a perceived danger; it is a real risk and a reflection of the ongoing violent colonial child welfare system. Any mother who flees a violent or abusive relationship, or is accessing safe homes or other anti-violence support service should be seen as actively pursuing safety, and therefore acting in the best interests of her children. A woman fleeing an abusive relationship should not automatically necessitate MCFD intervention. For Indigenous women who do face ongoing MCFD involvement, accessing anti-violence supports and services should not weigh negatively in MCFD’s assessment of Indigenous mothers. MCFD policy and practice should emphasize supporting Indigenous mothers and their children, and keeping them together during the difficult time of leaving an abusive relationship.
Legislative Reform of the Child, Family and Community Service Act
MCFD has recently completed the first feedback phase of a multi-year engagement process on its proposed legislative reform to the Child, Family, and Community Service Act (CFCSA). The CFCSA outlines the legal mandates for child welfare in BC and reform of the legislation has been long advocated.
Feminists Deliver, co-chaired by BWSS Executive Director Angela Marie MacDougall, has made a submission to the Child, Family Service Legislative Reform Committee. The submission states that reform of the CFCSA is “an opportunity to unlearn the white supremacist, racist, and colonial ways that MCFD has been operating from, and to decolonize and Indigenize its existence and operations.”
In their joint submission to the Committee, West Coast LEAF, Keeping Families Together, Parents Advocating Collectively for Kin, Raincity Housing and Atira, argue that engaging in transformative, decolonizing change and upholding Indigenous sovereignty should be one of the main goals of legislative reform to the CFCSA. The current legislation, they assert, “enables a system that is more akin to family policing and is rooted in suspicion, surveillance, regulation and punishment of families, especially Indigenous families.”
BWSS supports calls for transformative change of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, beginning- but not ending- with the reform of the Child, Family, and Community Service Act. MCFD must also immediately address its lack of transparency, its unjust funding structure, and its punitive and patronizing policies and practices. We
The Future of Indigenous Child Welfare
The future of Indigenous child welfare is Indigenous jurisdiction and self-determination over the well-being of Indigenous children and families. More Indigenous Nations than ever are successfully Indigenous-led child protection organizations offer a safer, just, and decolonial alternative to colonial child welfare systems. Indigenous-led child protection organizations operate from an inherently different standpoint than colonial child welfare agencies in that they’re rooted in traditional Indigenous kinship systems that place high value and importance on extended family connections and Indigenous cultural teachings. Indigenous-led organizations understand the importance of keeping children and youth connected to their families, communities, and traditional territories. They are guided by the mindset of connection rather than separation.
In BC there are numerous examples of Indigenous-led agencies successfully providing child protection services. Most operate from a model of partial authority delegated by the provincial government, while others have undergone significant advocacy to take back full jurisdiction over child protection services.
- Splatsin Stsmamlt Services, operated by Spallumcheen First Nation, is a child and family services agency that is “independent and completely autonomous” from the provincial government and MCFD. Splatsin Stsmamlt Services supports its membership both on- and off-reserve, focusing on keeping families together and children connected with their homelands and their Nation. They are the only First Nation community in Canada that can completely circumvent the application of provincial child welfare laws.
- Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS) provides “holistic health and wellness services” to Carrier and Sekani people that is guided by the “Carrier life cycle approach”. CSFS offers services for all age ranges, from prenatal care to Elder services. Their programming for children aims to “keep children and families together and increase the capacity of families to safely care for their children while nurturing their holistic development”.
- Lii Michif Otipemisiwak, a Métis child and family services agency, offers prevention programming and child protection services that are informed by traditional Métis cultural practices and “embedded in and delivered with love, compassion, and respect”.
In early 2022, the Simpcw First Nation signed a historic new agreement with the provincial government of BC, and by extension, MCFD. Tcwesétmentem, or “Walking Together Agreement”, infuses Simpcw “customs, laws, language, and decision-makers into the services provided to its families.” BWSS encourages MCFD to continue efforts like this to transform their relationships with Indigenous peoples, address the violent injustices of its past and present, and work towards a future free of colonial gender-based violence.