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Cora Morgan, First Nation Family Advocate, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs

On June 14, a mother sat quietly outside a courtroom in downtown Winnipeg. Behind the heavy wooden doors, a group of strangers argued about the future of her five children.

As an Ojibwa woman, the mother passionately wanted to raise her kids with their First Nation cultural identity and promised to follow whatever conditions the court imposed. Instead, the panel of judges granted permanent guardianship of all five children to three different foster homes, all non-Indigenous homes, splitting the family and cultural ties forever.

It does not have to be this way.

Manitoba has one of the highest child apprehension rates in the Western world. More than 10,000 children in our province have been taken away from their families and 90 per cent of those are Indigenous children. The long-term, traumatic effects of being removed from family, home, community and culture are well-documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others. This pattern continues 150 years of governments stealing our children, placing them in residential schools, sanatoriums and now foster care. This month, the Manitoba government amended The Child and Family Services Act to ensure children are not removed from homes because of poverty. This sounds positive, but is only a Band-Aid.

The real question we face is this: How can we, collectively, move beyond the distressing and destructive child welfare system in Manitoba and toward genuine reconciliation?

Imagine what we could accomplish if we flipped the focus and funding for child welfare from apprehension to prevention. It is costing taxpayers $7,000 a month for those five children who were taken away from their mother last month to be brought up in foster households. Only 10 per cent of Manitoba’s $514-million child welfare budget goes to prevention. If the bulk of funds went to providing real help for families that are struggling, instead of the other way around, it would have an enormous impact.

We need community-based family healing and support centres. Many parents are coping with the intergenerational damage of residential schools. They need a safe and supportive place to learn how to parent effectively, within cultural and ceremonial ways of being. They need occasional help and respite in their homes. We could and should have local child-care committees and a grandmothers’ council offering meaningful input into who is best able to care for children for periods when parents need extra support. We do not have these mechanisms in Manitoba: Instead we have lawyers, courtrooms and expensive foster care.

There is a patchwork of approaches across Canada, as provinces and territories have been in control of child welfare systems. In some provinces, children stay at home and supports are in place.

Manitoba clearly lags far behind with staggering apprehension rates. First Nations are working hard at the federal level to reclaim jurisdiction over children and services and supports for families. For thousands of years, First Nation children were raised in loving homes. It was commonly understood that children were nurtured not only by their parents, but their extended families as well, including grandparents, uncles and aunts. First Nations thrived by working together and caring for each other.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is spearheading an innovative project aimed at revitalizing and codifying First Nations laws relating to families and children. The Anishinaabeg, Anish-Ininiwak, Dakota Oyate, Denesuline and Nehethwuk/Ininwak shared their knowledge, stories and insights into traditional family practices to help us create this project.

This project was presented in Thompson last month to chiefs from across Manitoba. It is informing development of federal draft legislation, the Bringing Our Children Home Act. More immediately, the province and its agencies must stop making our children permanent wards of the state unless they can prove that all prevention and family supports have been exhausted.

Five more children, one just a baby, are growing up removed from their First Nations heritage, separated from their mother, family, community and each other. We owe it to them to end this practice.

Reconciliation does not mean doing the same thing over and over. It means creating real change, for the sake of our kids. It means bringing and keeping our children at home.

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