The horrors of the residential school system are now known widely across Canada, but Indigenous children are still being taken away from their families in large numbers through the foster care system. This was highlighted recently, when the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that victims of these forced separations should be eligible to receive $40,000 in compensation from the government. The Trudeau Liberals are unsurprisingly appealing this ruling.
For decades, Indigenous children have been apprehended by the government at rates highly disproportionate to other Canadians. Despite making up only seven per cent of the population, Indigenous children make up over 50 per cent of children in foster care and are apprehended 14 times more often than non-Indigenous children. In Manitoba, the province with the highest Indigenous population at 18 per cent, Indigenous kids make up 90 per cent of children in foster care. There are actually more Indigenous children in the foster care system today than there were in the residential school system during its peak. As former NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq said: “Colonization is not over. It has a new name. Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system.”
Poverty and foster care
Poverty on reserve serves as a direct funnel to foster care. Indigenous children are frequently born into poverty, and their families are denied any real resources to help them escape poverty. This gives the state the pretext to seize Indigenous kids under the pretense of “child welfare,” when in reality, if they were truly concerned for these children, they would be focusing on solving the epidemic of poverty they’re born into. Likewise, many of these children are mistreated while in foster care. According to the Canadian Child Welfare Research portal, there are at least 14,114 maltreatment investigations for Indigenous children. With just under 15,000 Indigenous children in foster care to begin with, that’s nearly one case for every child.
Much of this inequality stems from the horrible conditions that Indigenous children are subjected to. Nearly 40 per cent of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty, as compared to seven per cent of non-Indigenous children. Conditions on reserve are appalling. Many communities still don’t have access to clean tap water, and reserves are experiencing an ongoing housing crisis where issues like structural instability and black mould are rampant. This terrible poverty is mostly ignored by the state.
The Justin Trudeau government was elected on the promise to end all drinking-water advisories by March 2021, yet later backtracked and said they would be lifted “as soon as possible.” The government has yet to put forward any concrete plans to solve the housing crisis, or the epidemic of child poverty on reserve either. Indigenous family services are underfunded and insufficient to deal with poverty on reserve.
Oftentimes, children are taken away from their families without any pretense. We see this with the practice of “birth alerts.” Birth alerts are when health-care workers are allowed to notify social workers when they believe an expectant parent is “high risk.” The practice has disproportionately impacted Indigenous women, and have led to cases where Indigenous parents are separated from their child immediately after birth. While multiple provinces have officially banned the practice, it hasn’t stopped it from happening.
For instance, one Indigenous couple in Brandon, Manitoba had their newborn taken away only two days after birth and placed in foster care because a nurse reported that the parents had used “unsafe language” around the child. This is in a province where birth alerts are formally banned.
In British Columbia, there’s the case of Baby H. In September 2019, an Indigenous child was taken away from her family because a nurse reported the mother for neglect only 90 minutes after she had a C-section. Medical staff justified it by claiming they were told the couple was homeless, which is a lie as they were living in a two-bedroom apartment. This was the couple’s first child, meaning they could not have had any prior history with family services. The couple has yet to be allowed to see their child.
In the fall of 2019, the B.C. government announced an end to birth alerts. But that hasn’t put an end to the apprehension of infants. In fact, the case of Baby H has repeated itself almost exactly. On May 12, the parents of Baby H had a second child who was born prematurely. Their infant son was seized by the government while in an incubator and officials have refused to provide an explanation.
Oppression of Indigenous peoples inherent to capitalism
As has been proved time and time again, the courts are a tool of the state and cannot be relied on to win improvements for Indigenous people. Therefore, the labour movement needs to unite with Indigenous groups fighting against child apprehensions. In mid-October, the Gitanmaax Band in British Columbia physically prevented a social worker from taking a child into foster care. Actions like these need to be expanded with the wholehearted support of Canada’s labour organizations. Our labour movement needs to commit itself to ending poverty on reserves, and fight for compensation to those victimized by foster care and improvements to Indigenous communities.
The reality is that the government cannot solve this crisis. This is because to solve this crisis would take much more than $2 billion. The Liberals know this and they also know that if they give in on the $2 billion for victims of the foster care system, this will be seen as a victory and will only embolden the Indigenous movement.
The truth behind it all is that to truly end the forced abductions of Indigenous children, the conditions of poverty and oppression must be ended. However, a genuine end to poverty in Indigenous communities is not possible under capitalism. While Canada is a very rich country, and there isn’t any material reason why anyone should live with undrinkable water or dilapidated housing, our economy is directed to serve profit rather than need. The only long-term solution to this crisis is to overthrow the system in its entirety and build a new one on its grave. Under socialism, the immense wealth of this country could immediately be used to set about ending poverty on reserves.