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Today’s broken families

First Nations children are far more likely to end up in foster care than their non-Aboriginal peers

By Samantha Rideout

As we were warming ourselves next to the sacred fire at Winnipeg’s Truth and Reconciliation event yesterday, a new acquaintance named Ernie told me about his upbringing as a foster child on a farm in Nebraska. Although his biological family are First Nations people from the Winnipeg area, his adoptive family are non-Aboriginal Americans. Ernie said he had a happy childhood but that at the age of 43, he is still trying to find a place that feels like home, and to figure out his identity and beliefs. “It’s taking time to warm up to Canada,” he said, describing how he had sought out his biological mother and brothers as an adult. “I’m still discovering myself as a Native and as a Canadian.”

Ernie’s story is slightly unusual because of his adoption in the United States. But in other ways, it’s a very common one. Approximately one in 10 First Nations children in Canada are in child welfare care, according to a report prepared for the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS). By contrast, only one in 150 non-Aboriginal children are in care.

This great discrepancy is at the heart of a complaint that has been before the Canadian Human Rights Commission since 2007. Submitted by the Assembly of First Nations and the FNCFCS, the complaint alleges that children on reserves receive approximately 22 percent less child welfare funding from the federal government than other children receive from provincial governments, resulting in a kind of two-tiered system.

The most common reason for non-Aboriginal children to be reported to child welfare services is physical, sexual or emotional abuse. By contrast, many children on reserves are reported because of poverty, poor housing or caregiver substance abuse. The FNCFCS claims that a lot of these problems could be addressed without sending children into foster care if First Nations child welfare agencies had more adequate resources.

For the moment, the Canadian government is fighting to have the human rights complaint dismissed for technical reasons. But even if the government succeeds, the issue of child welfare funding is not likely to be forgotten anytime soon by First Nations activists and leaders.

In a speech at the TRC’s sharing tent on Monday, Métis leader Clément Chartier pointed out that there are actually more First Nations children in foster care now than there ever were in residential schools at any given time. “Residential schools have ended, but our children are still being taken away,” he said. “A lot of them are sent to non-Aboriginal homes, and a lot of them don’t know who they are when they turn 18.”

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