Content warning: this article contains information that may be painful for some readers. The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience. They can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
There are more Indigenous family separations today than there were during the residential school system.
According to the 2016 census, Indigenous children represent 52 per cent of children in child welfare in Canada, despite accounting for only 7.7 per cent of the overall population.
The most recent data from the federal government shows that there are almost 15,000 Indigenous children in child welfare, compared to 11,000 children at the height of the residential school system in 1953.
Katherine Gandy is a Secwépemc and Ojibwe grassroots organizer in Toronto. She runs the Facebook group End the Millennium Scoop, which advocates for Indigenous sovereignty and the right for Indigenous families to keep their children out of the child welfare system. She’s also the founder of the Matriarchal Circle, a grassroots organization of Toronto based Indigenous mothers, grandmothers, and aunties who have been impacted by child welfare agencies, working in unity to heal from colonial forces, and advocate for change. The Matriarchal Circle's vision is for child welfare to be practiced in Toronto in true Indigenous grassroots led circles, "as opposed to the neo-colonial, oppressive, genocidal acts in the current child welfare system."
“I got involved with the child welfare system because my children were taken from me by Native Child and Family Services of Toronto,” Gandy said over a phone call in June. “It's not something that you're used to growing up, that you're going to be involved with such a monster of a diabolical system.”
On May 31st, Gandy co-organized a vigil at Nathan Phillips Square to honour the 215 children whose remains were found at the Kamloops Residential School in the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Gandy’s grandparents attended the Kamloops residential school, and both of her parents were taken into the Catholic Children’s Aid society as babies. The vigil united about 200 Indigeous community members and allies. It featured jingle dancers and Indigenous elders who spoke of their time in residential schools, as well as Sol Mamakwa, a Kingfisher Lake band member and the MPP for Kiiwetinoong, Sioux Lookout.
At the vigil, Gandy emphasized that the child welfare system in Canada has replaced the residential school system. She spoke about her struggle with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto when her oldest son was taken from her and placed in a high risk residential group facility two hours outside of Toronto. After she found that her young son had been prescribed two adult doses of heavy medication, she made the decision to exercise her Sovereignty and Self-Determination Rights to Care, Raise and Protect her children. At the time, two of Gandy's three children were Crown Wards, meaning they were legally under the guardianship of the government. Gandy represented herself in court and used Native Laws to successfully remove the Crown Ward status from her children. They both live with her now.
“Both the residential school legacy, this colonial genocidal discriminatory system — and Indigenous child welfare agencies, and non-Indigenous child welfare agencies ministries — they are carrying out genocide,” Gandy said. "The whole time NCFST was fighting me, they were essentially violating my Sovereignty Rights to Care, Raise and Protect my children." She said the NCFST was also violating their mission statement, which states they "provide a life of quality, well being, caring and healing for children and families in the Toronto Native community. We do this by creating a service model that is culture-based and respects the values of Native people, the extended family, and the right to self-determination."
Gandy emphasized the need for family reunification in the child welfare system. "The funds NCFST receives need to be redirected to families and grassroots groups to end the Millennium Scoop genocide. The funds NCFST receives for [child and family separation] prevention are not going towards keeping families together, which heals intergenerational traumas of the grandchildren of Residential Schools survivors."
The federal government doesn’t keep consistent, accessible data on how many children are part of the child welfare system province to province. Instead, it delegates that data collection to provinces and territories.
In 2015, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action requested that the federal government publish annual reports on the number of Indigenous children (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) who are in child welfare, compared with non-Indigenous children. The TRC listed child welfare in their very first call to action, and urged the Canadian government to provide “adequate resources to enable Aboriginal communities and child welfare organizations to keep Aboriginal families together where it is safe to do so, and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments, regardless of where they reside.”
Ontario has one of the most fragmented child welfare systems in the country. There are 50 different children’s aid societies, including 12 Indigenous ones. According to the Ontario government’s website, over 12,000 children and youth are involved with 50 children’s aid societies across the province. This includes children and youth in kinship care, child welfare and group care placements. There is no public data that specifies how many Indigenous children are in the Ontario welfare system. Critics of the system have called this lack of transparency and accountability worrisome.
According to Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services website, “Each society is an independent, non-profit organization run by a board of directors elected from the local community, or a First Nation operating under the Indian Act.” The term “child welfare” refers to the system of services provided to children and youth “in need of protection” because they have been or are at risk of being abused and/or neglected, as well as services provided to families to prevent their child or youth from coming into care, or to facilitate reunification with a child or youth in care.
In 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) called the disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black children in Ontario’s child welfare system a “growing crisis.” A study of 27 child welfare agencies by the OHCR found that Indigenous children made up 30 per cent of all children in the child welfare system, despite only being 4.1 per cent of the population of kids under the age of 15 years-old — 2.6 times higher than their proportion in the child population. The study found that race-based data collection was inconsistent across the 50 child welfare agencies in the province; some agencies collected that information, some didn’t. In 2018, Ontario launched a plan of provincial standards for identity-based data collection that child welfare agencies were required to adhere to. The Hoser could not independently verify if all 50 agencies are currently collecting race-based data.
Data collection across all facets of the child welfare system are lacking in Ontario, critics say. The number of child deaths within the welfare system is not made public. In 2019, APTN scoured the chief coroner of Ontario’s year end Paediatric Death Review Committee report and found that 102 children connected to child welfare in Ontario died between 2013 and 2017, though that number may be higher. The details of these deaths are still unknown.
Over the last decade, the federal government has increased its budget for child welfare in Indigenous communities significantly. The Government of Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Services (FNCFS) website features their most recent funding data for the year 2018-2019 with a yearly budget of $1.1 billion dollars.
Almost 70 per cent of that funding went towards funding First Nations children in child welfare, while 23 per cent went to kinship care, where a child is kept within the family. Two per cent was allocated for placing children in institutions, though it did not specify what they were, and five per cent went towards group homes.
The website also lists 9,312 Indigenous children in the FNCFS system for 2018-2019, with just over $46,000 allocated to each child per year. This does not include children from Inuit or Metis communities, or children living off-reserve or the Northwest Territories.
A study by the Homeless Hub, a web-based research library and information centre, reported that youths experiencing homelessness are 193 times more likely to have previously been involved with the child welfare system. It showed that being removed from a family home at an early age, as well as living in the child welfare system, was directly associated with a higher chance of future homelessness.
This is in part caused by a lack of resources and support offered to children who age out of the system in Ontario once they turn 18. A report titled Exploring Youth Outcomes After Aging-Out of Care by Jane Kovarikova of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth says there are approximately 17,000 children in Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario (taken from a study published in 2012), and almost half have been permanently removed from their homes and families. Each year, between 800 and 1000 kids age out of the system, with little support.
On June 21st, Gandy organized a rally for Indigenous Peoples Day, called the National Day In Solidarity to End the Millennium Scoop. The rally was held in front of the Native Child and Family Services Toronto downtown office on College Ave. between Yonge St. and Bay St. With a microphone amplifying her powerful, steady voice, Gandy recounted her experience she and her son had with the agency to a crowd of roughly 40 people. Passersby on College Street often stopped on the sidewalk, captivated by her emotional story.
“They act like they provide community programs and services, whereas the community knows different,” Gandy said. “The community experiences extreme police violence, with child welfare workers who, when an apprehension happens, go to my people's homes, residences, hospitals, to take the children. So it's police state violence, working hand in hand with these Indigenous child welfare agencies, to commit discrimination, oppression, and genocidal acts.”
NCFST is one of 12 Indigenous child welfare agencies in Ontario. It is a registered non-profit and receives funding from the federal and provincial governments, as well as the city of Toronto and other non-profits and charities. The NCFST offers a range of services for Indigenous children and parents, including after school programs, day camps, food security, and Indigenous youth outreach programs. In 2021, NCFST’s total revenue was over $48 million. Its executive director, Jeffery Schiffer, was salaried at $211,000 in 2019, (slightly more than Toronto mayor John Tory) according to the Ontario government’s Sunshine List.
Their 2020-2021 annual report states that 162 children were “served” through their Family Finding program, where Indigenous children are placed in homes with family or extended family. There is no information on why these children were part of the child welfare system or when they had been removed from their parents.
The NCFST’s child welfare section of their website states, “NCFST delivers legislated child welfare services that are integrated with culturally grounded and holistic prevention services [...] In situations where all alternative care pathways have been exhausted, the courts may decide that a child must be placed with a Child and Family Well-Being Agency under Extended Society Care.”
Many parents who are faced with difficult decisions involving their children and the child welfare system do not go through the court system. Kinship or customary care agreements, or private arrangements, are agreements made between parents and child welfare agencies where the parents agree to give up consent of their child without a court forcing them to. But many have no idea that they can legally revoke this and take their children back into their own custody. Any agreement outside of the court system can be revoked.
On that same child welfare page, the NCFST states that, “In certain situations, children and youth are unable to remain with their caregivers and must be placed in alternative care. NCFST explores alternative care through Kin Care, Customary Care, and [child welfare] options that meet the standards set out by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) and provide safe, stable and nurturing homes rooted in the traditions and values of the child’s Aboriginal community.” There is no mention of the possibility of children being placed at high risk facilities, like the one Gandy’s son went to two hours outside of Toronto.
Westwind Evening is a longtime friend of Gandy, whom Gandy refers to as her kokum, or grandmother. Westwind is Saulteaux from the Fishing Lake reserve in Saskatchewan, but has lived in Toronto since 2010. She is part of the Matriarchal Circle, is a writer and a knowledge keeper. Gandy and Westwind have known each other for ten years.
“I've watched [Gandy] over the years fighting for her children and speaking out. I joined to support her because it's a lonely road, you know, when you're fighting this kind of system.”
Westwind believes that part of the answer in addressing the failed child welfare system in Canada is asserting Indigenous sovereignty rights and reclaiming the traditional ways in which Indigenous communities have raised their children for millenia. “We need to just start taking care of our children the way we used to do, taking our own the way we used to. It takes a village to raise a child.
“They talk about, you know, the best interest of the child. What is the best interest of the child? Ripping them from their family? That doesn't make sense. So we're trying to make it so that the child is protected, because the child is sacred.”
Last week, the Cowesses First Nation in Saskatchewan became the first First Nation to reclaim jurisdiction over their child welfare using Bill C 92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families. The Act allows First Nations to take control of their child welfare programs from the provinces and territories. This jurisdiction was taken from First Nations and reserves with the Indian Act in 1951. Cowesses First Nation made international headlines at the end of June after 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval Residential School.
The federal government has pledged $542 million in funding towards implementing the Act with Indigenous communities. So far, 38 Indigenous Governing Bodies representing over 100 Indigenous groups have requested to exercise jurisdiction of Bill C92.
“I often talk about our cradleboard teachings,” Westwind said. “When a child is born, they're bundled up, and the mother puts them in the cradle board because it makes them feel like they're still in the womb. If you know our teachings, it's traumatic to be born. So motherhood is all about trying to comfort and make the child feel secure, and loved and bundled up.”
We wish to acknowledge this land on which The Hoser operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.