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Why did Canada separate Indigenous families from their children?


Canada plans to reform its treatment of children of Indigenous families. The country promised more than $30 billion to fix the child welfare system. That system has often separated children from their parents. Many people know the United States' own version of this story. Generations ago, this country used to put many Native children in boarding schools. Canada did the same and much more recently, as recently as 1996. Even today, the government continues to put many Indigenous kids in foster care, and does that far more often than the kids of other families. Officially, children are separated due to poverty or substance abuse. We called an advocate on this issue. And we're about to hear him talk of practices that some will find disturbing. Andre Bear is 27 and described the policy that Canada now acknowledges to be wrong.

ANDRE BEAR: It's intended to address the systemic discrimination of Indigenous children in Canada. And this all started with the Indian residential schools in Canada. You would call them boarding schools in the United States, where the intention was to kill the Indian in the child and assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant body or society. And so following the Indian residential schools in Canada, Indigenous children were further being taken from their families, usually justified through means of poverty or addictions. And they would be placed intentionally with non-Indigenous families.

INSKEEP: I guess we should describe how these policies were promoted at the time. It was thought that it would be better if kids learned English, if kids learned what we would think of as Western culture and not learn the culture they were born into. And that's what would happen first in these schools and then in foster care. Is that right?

BEAR: Yes. Absolutely. The assimilation policies, many believe, even have evolved. They're not as explicit. But it is more on the down low where these children are discriminated, underfunded and where the provinces will not let go over the jurisdiction that they have. We have an alarming rate of First Nation children that are apprehended. Birth alerts also are still occurring today.

INSKEEP: Birth alerts, what are those?

BEAR: When a First Nations mother has an addiction or is in poverty, the child welfare system in the province will send a notice to the hospital. They put the woman on notice that when they are going to give birth to this child, it will immediately be apprehended and placed under the care of the ministry.

INSKEEP: Apprehended is a grim word for that.

BEAR: Absolutely. And speaking of apprehended, I myself am one of the children that was apprehended as a child. And I distinctly remember the time of being with my mother, who was an alcoholic due to being abused in Indian residential schools. And because of her alcoholism, and we lived in poverty, I guess it made it very easy for the ministry to cast my mom as a high risk. And I remember being placed with a white family and feeling like I was with strangers.

INSKEEP: How long were you with that other family?

BEAR: It wasn't long, actually. It must have been about six months that I was with the other family. But I was lucky that over time, my mom was able to attend rehabilitation and get into school and try her best to get her children back. It happened twice in my life and due to the same things, addictions and poverty.

INSKEEP: Did you say that your mother herself, when she was young, was taken away from her parents and put in one of that era's residential schools?

BEAR: Yes. So when my mom was young, they were forced to attend Indian residential schools. And so it was, again, a different version of assimilation policy. Her parents were also taken and placed into Indian residential schools. And around that era of about, I'd say, 50 years ago or maybe 60 years ago - last year, I had worked with a law firm in Saskatchewan. And we had sea cans full of files from Indian residential school survivors. And every single file that I've read as a lawyer in training was about being sexually abused in these schools, the constant torture and bullying that would happen. And these were kids. These survivors had shared their stories of what they had faced. And so the intergenerational trauma and the effects from these schools is very real. It's just as real as the policies that continue to evolve and eradicate Indigenous families.

INSKEEP: If we were able to go find the child welfare worker or person from authority who took you away from your mother when you were 3, I wonder if we'd face a hard question - because that person might say, well, this was an unsafe home for a child with someone who is abusing alcohol. I had to do something, they might say. What do you think they should have done?

BEAR: I think that is the most important and key question that these social workers need to ask themselves when entering child protection in Canada. When we look at social work, we have to look at rebuilding the nationhood of Indigenous peoples. And that starts with the family and making sure that we are not doing more to destroy those families, that we are doing the best that we can to keep them together.

INSKEEP: So now the Canadian government has committed $40 billion to address this problem, 40 billion Canadian dollars. That's 30-some billion U.S. dollars. What could that money do?

BEAR: Well, half of the money is meant to reform the child welfare system. And that is what I think is most promising. And I'm hoping that money will go specifically towards decolonizing these policies and the behaviors and mindsets of government decision-makers, policymakers, that have created this vicious industry for Indigenous children that are apprehended. But again, I don't think money will ever solve the problems from the harms caused by the child welfare system. There's going to be still people that are going to fight to keep Indigenous children apprehended even today. They're going to fight to keep birth alerts happening. And this kind of mindset is, to me, anyways - it's like an entitlement that people that work in the child welfare industry begin to feel that they have over Indigenous children because they've had control over them for so long.

INSKEEP: Andre Bear, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

BEAR: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to have my voice heard.