Crime is real, and so are sociological phenomena, though Prime Minister Stephen Harper fallaciously delinked them, when speaking about the murder of Tina Fontaine. Last Saturday, we wrote about the disastrous failure of aboriginal education. Equally calamitous is the failure of child welfare for aboriginals.
Early in Ms. Fontaine’s life, her mother became an alcoholic. Her father, who was himself ill, turned for assistance to his sister, Thelma Favel, who lived on a Manitoba reserve, Sagkeeng First Nation. She took custody. When Tina was 12, her father was beaten to death on Sagkeeng, a fact that increasingly tormented her. Ms. Favel resorted to Manitoba’s Child and Family Services, in Winnipeg. She needed help and she thought they could offer it. But in the weeks before Ms. Fontaine was killed, her whereabouts were often unclear – both to her aunt and CFS.
At least Tina Fontaine had the experience of life in a family household. Family life for aboriginals was severely damaged by the residential schools system, a deeply misguided attempt at modernization and assimilation. It started in the 19th century – the basis for the loosely used term “colonialism” in this context – and stretched well into the 20th. In addition to separating children from loved ones and exhibiting a general hostility to native culture, those schools often descended into brutality and pedophilia.
Many of those who emerged had little or no experience of what parents and grandparents actually do, having been forcibly deprived of their own. Many lacked models to follow when they came to have their own children. The residential schools were eventually wound down in the 1950s and ’60s. But then another wave of ill-considered enthusiasm followed. That was the adoption of many aboriginal children by white couples in the 1960s and afterwards, sometimes without clear consent from the natural parents. This well-meant fad later became known as “the sixties scoop” of native children.
By the 1980s, its excesses were recognized, and white middle-class adoptions of Indian children were severely criticized. A Manitoba judge’s report declared there had been a systematic “cultural genocide.” The pendulum has now swung so far in the opposite direction that it is very difficult for non-aboriginals to adopt aboriginal children.
Nevertheless, in this not-so-brave new world, there are now far more aboriginal children in the care of the state than there were students in the residential schools at any one time in their deplorable history. At the residential school system’s peak in 1953, it had just over 11,000 students. The number of aboriginal children in government care across Canada is roughly triple that figure. An extremely high proportion of children being cared by the state are native. In Manitoba, for example, upwards of 80 per cent of children under the charge of government, and not biological or adoptive parents, are aboriginal.
This is not how it is supposed to be. The adoption of native children by natives may well be preferable, but we live in a world of second-bests. Allowing non-aboriginal parents to sometimes adopt native children is not always the worst option. Especially when the other option may be no adoption at all.
In June, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth published a report showing that Manitoba’s abysmal situation isn’t unique. In B.C., Ms. Turpel-Lafond found that the “vast overrepresentation” of aboriginal children “in the in-care population” – that is, those the state is looking after – has actually been steadily rising, from 54 per cent in 2005-2006 to almost 64 per cent in 2012-2013. At the same time, the proportion of aboriginal children being adopted has been consistently falling.
Reluctance to adopt native children appears to be found among both non-aboriginals and aboriginals. In her recent report, Ms. Turpel-Lafond appealed to First Nations families to adopt, and to develop new ceremonies for adoptions – adoption from another tribe in some cases not being traditional. The challenge starts with memories of the “sixties scoop” and residential schools, but it unfortunately does not end there.
Tina Fontaine’s aunt, Thelma Favel, deserves much praise for taking care of her niece, even though at some points she underestimated her own abilities, and hoped that a government agency could somehow do better than she could.
Could government agencies do better? As it now stands, police – in the case of Tina Fontaine, the Winnipeg police – continue to bear most of the burden of trying to keep track of teenage runaways. Should this be their job, or their job alone? The police clearly need help. But employees of CFS, the agency best placed to help, have their hands full managing group homes and facilities for children in state care – and hoping they will show up for meals and sleep. But some of the places where runaways gather are known, such as the Portage Place mall in Winnipeg. Here’s one small idea: It would make sense for CFS to have its own, special unit to go out, find and keep in touch with runaways and coax them off the streets. Such a new unit would – and should – cost additional money to the government.
Canadian governments – and that means Canadian taxpayers – must accept the need to spend more on native child welfare, and more on native education. We have to get this right. The cost of failure is too high. Otherwise there will be swaths of economic and social disaster zones in Western Canada and Northern Ontario – areas with large populations of young people who have spent much of their lives in care, and even larger numbers without a high school education. Unless trends change, the epicentre will be Manitoba.