Native children also have the right to parents

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/opinions/editorials
Published Saturday, December 11, 2010.

Native children are languishing in state care in unthinkable numbers, far higher than ever lived in residential schools at any one time. Canada remains so traumatized by the “sixties scoop,” the widespread adoption of native children into white homes, that it allows the native children of today to grow up without a permanent home of their own.

One answer is to permit some native children to be adopted into non-native homes. The right to a loving, nurturing and permanent family should be deemed at least as important as cultural considerations.

It will be said Canada has been down that road before – the road of cultural genocide, as Manitoba’s associate chief justice, Edwin Kimelman, termed it in his 1985 report, No Quiet Place. But why assume adoptions would inevitably be done as they were during the scoop years? Alone among provinces, Manitoba routinely sent children out of the province, and even the country, to be adopted. These adopted children were rarely told they had treaty rights. Their adoptive families were usually given no support or information on cultural matters. Today, adoptions often allow for contact between a family of origin and the adoptive family. The importance of cultural identity is widely recognized.

Some native leaders argue that most Canadians know little about native life, and have no points of contact with native communities. They say the programs that might support links between adoptive families and those communities do not (with some exceptions) exist. All, sadly, true. But that is because we – native and non-native – have not conceived of a need for such programs.

Is the deprivation suffered by a generation of children growing up in foster homes an improvement on “cultural genocide”? After the sixties scoop, the obligatory orphans?

The harm that residential schools did to children and families has resonated through the generations. At the schools’ peak in 1953 they held 11,090 students. Today, though native children represent about six per cent of all children, they are an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of children in care, or up to 31,200 children in all. What will be the effects of condemning so many to a parentless childhood, 20 years from now?

Mr. Kimelman recommended that the adoption of native children by non-native parents be a last resort. Truly, the situation of last resort has arrived. In Manitoba, an astonishing 87 per cent of the 9,120 children in care are native. Just 14 native children were placed for adoption in the 2009-10 fiscal year. (In the much smaller non-native group, 23 children were adopted.) Many children in care languish, bounce from home to home. The case of a native 14-year-old, Tracia Owen of Manitoba, who was moved 64 times before she hanged herself in 2005, is an extreme example of the despair that instability brings.

The bulk of the answer for these children needs to come from native communities: more emphasis on “kinship care” (relatives supported by foster-care payments), for instance, and on traditional forms of informal adoption known as “custom care.” Incredibly, federal funding has supported the apprehension of children on reserves, but not preventive work with their families. This approach is only now being reformed in several provinces, including Manitoba.

It is a bitter irony that, even as much of Canada implicitly forbids non-native adoptions of native children, many native children in care are growing up in non-native foster homes. So to the extent that cultural loss or identity is a problem, it is being felt already, but without the chance for many of those children to enjoy a permanent home.

In Britain, similar race- or culture-based policies are under attack. Children’s Minister Tim Loughton says a “good, loving, stable permanent home” should be the first consideration, ahead of a racial match. In Canada, Peter Dudding, head of the Child Welfare League of Canada, sees the best interests of native children in a similar way. “To provide permanency that is respectful of their identity and culture would be a reasonable approach responding to the needs of that child.” Although it may surprise some, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, agrees, on the condition that the federal government close what she says is a $109-million gap in funding for native-run child-welfare agencies. “I’m not an absolutist. I think sometimes that can be a good solution for children.”

Feelings about the “scoop” are still raw in Manitoba, the province with the most extreme form of the practice, and the last to end it, in the early 1980s. “It is still very much an indictment of formal mainstream adoption among aboriginal peoples,” Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh says. Only last year, premier Gary Doer apologized in the Legislature for the pain inflicted on native peoples. The “best interests” of native children are now defined to make it nearly impossible to be adopted by a non-native family. But it is hard to imagine how a child’s best interests can be protected outside a permanent home.

This is the tragedy of Canada. Striving to avoid the wrongs of the past, we have inflicted new wrongs, of temporariness and a lack of nurturing, on the most vulnerable children. Unless we insist on the right of these children to permanent parents, future premiers may find themselves apologizing again, for lives ruined by yet another public policy failure.

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