Last week we observed the second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I have been reflecting on the systemic impacts of residential schools, along with the ongoing trauma and harms being faced by Indigenous communities.
Residential schools and day schools created a horrific legacy, which separated children from their families and culture. It stripped them of their identity as Indigenous people, and even those who did make it home were no longer the same. They were often ostracized by their communities, and were forced to deal with the ongoing traumatic impacts of residential schools in solitude.
Processes of recognition and truth, such as the stories gathered for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), can help us understand what happened and take steps to heal from traumas and mend relationships broken by colonization. Often the most difficult truth for many settlers is that the processes of trauma and harm are alive and ongoing.
The residential school system was one of many strategies used to separate families and remove children from their culture. Violence and abuse created a deep sense of shame for their Indigenous ancestry. Cultural practices and traditional languages were nearly wiped out, leaving gaps in history and experience. These gaps remain today, and with elders — the traditional knowledge holders — leaving to the spirit world, the responsibility to carry on cultural practices is now left to the next generation. This is no small job, especially given the cultural consequence of removing Indigenous children from their family homes and communities.
The first Calls to Action from the TRC address child welfare. According to the Government of Canada, “52.2 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, but account for only 7.7 per cent of the child population.” The rates of children and youth in government care in British Columbia are even more striking. In 2021, Indigenous children comprised 67 per cent of children in care in B.C. despite only making up 10 per cent of the child and youth population in the province.
According to The Homeless Hub, 40 per cent of the people experiencing homelessness in Canada were previously involved in the child welfare system. Risk of homelessness, drug use, and suicide are already significantly higher among Indigenous peoples, but get further compounded by a history of experience in the child welfare system. The Statistics Canada Report, Suicide among First Nations people, Métis and Inuit (2011-2016), found that Indigenous people die by suicide at a rate three times as high as non-Indigenous Canadians.
The B.C. Government is further imposing harm by withholding records of Indigenous children and youth in care from Indigenous communities. Just this year, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations tried to regain jurisdiction over their children and families and asked the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) for access to their nations’ files. The nations were told, by the deputy director of child welfare, that the ministry had decided not to disclose full records.
Despite the last residential school closing in 1996 in Port Alberni, the B.C. Government’s child welfare system continues to perpetuate the harms and injustices of colonialism.
The solutions have been laid out by the TRC Calls to Action and must be adopted urgently. The federal and provincial governments need to transfer sovereignty over Indigenous children to Indigenous peoples, and in turn must provide the financial resources these communities are owed. Supports, such as benefits and compensation for children in care who have been victims of crime, are essential for improving the lives of care survivors.
If every child matters, we should take immediate action to remediate the harms being perpetuated against Indigenous children and their families. The federal and B.C. provincial governments need to take decisive action to keep Indigenous children and youth with their families, and in their communities, and move forward with the transfer of jurisdiction back to Nations.
It can feel easier to reflect on history and apologize for actions taken in the past. But reconciliation means holding up a mirror and looking at the harms being perpetuated in this generation. It means demanding better from the government. It means asking what we can do to break the cycle of colonization. Reconciliation is not, and should not, be easy — but it is essential.
Sonia Furstenau is the MLA for Cowichan Valley and the leader of the BC Green Party.