The back story of many of the missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country is often disturbingly analogous.
Many grew up in horribly dysfunctional homes, taken by child welfare authorities at a young age and placed in the foster care system. Eventually, they ended up on the streets, prostituting themselves and becoming prey to malevolent miscreants who take advantage of women in desperate circumstances. Later, they might be discovered dead in a river or alley or not found at all. In many cases, this cycle of despair begins the moment the child is ripped from her home, taken from parents for reasons of abuse or neglect.
Recently, the Misipawistik First Nation in northern Manitoba adopted a policy to remove parents, not children, from dangerous home settings. It was heralded in some reports as a radical new approach to an age-old problem – except it isn't. It was pioneered by the province's Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation in 2002 and, we are happy to report, has met with some success. But anyone imagining this to be an instant panacea for addressing the root causes of the missing and murdered women phenomenon is misguided.
Felix Walker is the chief executive officer of the Community Wellness Centre in Nelson House. The centre handles all child abuse matters for the Nisichawayasihk. The on-reserve population is nearly 3,000, another 2,000 band members live off reserve.
Since the program's inception, about 65 parents – mostly single women – have been temporarily removed from their homes over concerns they were not properly taking care of their children. About 95 per cent, Mr. Walker said, returned at some point to assume their parenting duties.
When a parent is removed, she goes to stay elsewhere on the reserve, usually with friends or family. The children are cared for initially by a respite worker, then eventually by extended family. A parent can be gone for as many as three months receiving counselling or treatment, most often for alcohol dependency.
This does not tell the complete picture, however. There are still Nisichawayasihk children being removed from parents and becoming permanent wards of the province. These are, in many cases, children of families living off reserve – but not in all instances. In 2010, there were 455 Nisichawayasihk children in permanent care; by last year, that number had dropped to 324. Some of these children had to leave because of complex medical needs that couldn't be addressed on reserve.
There have been no apprehensions of children on reserve since October, 2013.
Generally, this has to be considered a good-news story. But as Mr. Walker pointed out, it has taken a long time for the program to take hold and have an impact. The Nisichawayasihk have health and human resources programs many First Nations simply don't have. It has taken many years to build that capacity, to properly train their own people to administer trauma and addiction counselling, among other services. It's taken willpower to stick with the program when early results were tepid.
Under the Nisichawayasihk way, parents are forced to assume responsibility for their actions. No longer is it acceptable to simply blame bad behaviour on the intergenerational impact of residential schools. (Undoubtedly a factor in some instances.) A parent who is removed from the home gets to feel what it's like for children when they are cruelly cleaved from their family. A parent experiencing the same separation trauma can often have a life-changing, life-saving revelation.
From afar, it appears Nisichawayasihk leaders are building much-needed accountability into the actions of those who live on their reserve. No longer is it acceptable to simply point the finger at others. This is an important step on the road to confronting the many intractable issues facing First Nations communities. And it's not one that absolves governments of their responsibilities on this front.
There are still far too many dispiriting occurrences in our aboriginal villages every day, but also far too many kids being taken away and placed into environments that do more harm than good. Children exist at the spiritual core of a First Nations community. When you remove them, you are not just confiscating someone's child but also robbing that broader aboriginal society of some of its sacred soul.
Whenever we can, we need to leave aboriginal children where they are. And First Nations themselves must play a pivotal role in making that happen.