Finding a new way forward

Canada’s settler history with Indigenous peoples is not a noble one, whether we consider theft of land, poisoning the environment, taking over Indigenous governments, the residential school system, destruction of culture or violence perpetrated against Indigenous women. The present – ongoing violence against Indigenous women, lack of housing and adequate funding for education on reserves, contaminated drinking water on reserve, the high rate at which Indigenous women and men are incarcerated, poverty and both overt and subtle systemic and individual racism — doesn’t look a whole lot (or any) better.

Perhaps nowhere are both history and present more starkly evident than in the treatment of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. While Indigenous children make up just 7.7 percent of Canada’s child population, they make up 52.2 percent of children in foster care across the country.

According to Cindy Blackstock, long-time advocate for Indigenous children and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, more than three times the number of Indigenous children are placed in state care today than were put into the residential school system at the height of its operations.

One small step

There are many reasons that so many Indigenous kids find their way into state care, almost all of them rooted in racism both historic and ongoing. Parents raised in the residential school system often lack the skills to be the best parents they could be, because they had no parenting role models to learn from. Lack of adequate pre-natal care can flag pregnant Indigenous women for state attention. Ongoing violence against women, poverty and no safe, affordable housing create further barriers, as does multi-generational trauma within individual families.

In July, Ontario’s government took an important first step towards changing the direction of child protection authorities in their dealings with Indigenous families: it announced that, as of October 15th, it is ending the long-standing, although never required, practice of birth alerts.

Birth alerts are notifications sent by children’s aid societies to hospitals when they believe a newborn (or not yet born) infant may be in need of protection. This notification system allows the baby to be removed from the mother at birth.

In its media announcement, the government noted that:

“It has been reported that the practice of birth alerts disproportionately affects racialized and marginalized mothers and families. Expectant mothers can be deterred from seeking prenatal care or parenting supports while pregnant due to fears of having a birth alert issued.”

The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS), which surely could have ended the practice long ago without waiting for government action, announced its support for this decision:

“While their [birth alerts’] intention is to keep children safe, we acknowledge that they have negative impacts and unintended negative consequences for marginalized children and families.”

Cause for celebration

Indigenous women in Ontario have fought hard to end birth alerts. As the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA) noted in its media release:

“Indigenous women have identified birth alerts as a discriminatory practice for many years . . . ONWA’s membership have collectively endorsed numerous resolutions on necessary change in the child welfare system. . . .Indigenous women have always had the knowledge, skills and abilities to raise their families. They have an inherent right for jurisdiction over their children. We cannot talk about jurisdiction without including mothers in the conversation.”

Article 22(2) of UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (not ratified by Canada) calls for “full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination” for Indigenous women and children.

The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls states, in recommendation 12.8:

“We call upon provincial and territorial governments and child welfare services for an immediate end to the practice of targeting and apprehending infants (hospital or birth alerts) from Indigenous mothers right after they give birth.”

Wendy Sturgeon, Executive Director of the Niagara Chapter- Native Women Inc, has been a leader in the grassroots work that contributed to the government’s recent announcement:

“This gives Indigenous women and families the beginning of a fighting chance to begin to believe that we’ll be able to raise our own children within our families . . . an absolute human right that has been interfered with for centuries.. . . Rooting out racist policies and procedures is basic to human dignity and equality. This finally gives our Indigenous women a glimmer of hope that there is some light at the end of this long tunnel of intergenerational trauma, enforced family disconnect and that we will be able to finally have support and care to help keep our families together.

A long journey ahead

Even as Cindy Blackstock acknowledges the importance of Ontario’s decision to end birth alerts, she points out that this is not the end of the work that needs to be done:

“What we need to do is more research to find out how it is that we keep children safe in those very rare circumstances where it’s clear the parent presents a clear and obvious danger to that child . .. And then how do we – for the vast majority of people – not penalize them, but rather provide the supports they need to be loving, caring and effective parents in the way they want to be.”

Cora McGuire-Cyrette, ONWA Executive Director, agrees, noting that the journey ahead must address racism, gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence as well as the long list of ongoing challenges created by settlers for Indigenous peoples. After all, as she says:

“Indigenous children deserve better.”

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