The Residential School System Didn’t End—It Just Became Foster Care

“‘Social worker’ are two of the most horrifying words in the English language for Indigenous people.”
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
June 9, 2021, 12:20pm
Shoes honouring the 215 children found at former Kamloops Indian Residential School
Shoes honouring the 215 undocumented children found buried under the former Catholic-run Kamloops I(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In the early 1970s, Don Philpot was working at a church gearing up to host about 30 Indigenous children, ages 4-6, overnight—all were en route to Lejac Residential School in British Columbia. The kids, taken from their parents by force, didn’t know where they were—or where they were going. They spent the night crying. 

“He said, ‘There is something really wrong here,’” said Mukwa Musayett, who met Philpot in 1991, when they were both social workers.

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Fast forward to the 1990s and Philpot, again, saw something wrong: the child welfare system was disproportionately stripping Indigenous children from their homes and placing them with white families. “It wasn't right then, and it's not right now, what we’re doing by having these children in non-Indigenous homes,” Mukwa Musayett recalls Philpot telling her at the time. (Philpot died in the 1990s.)

“That had a profound impact on me because he had a vision of both the residential school and child welfare systems, and neither was right,” said Mukwa Musayett, who is Saulteaux, a professor at Thompson Rivers University, and Canadian Research Chair in Indigenizing higher education. 

“The connection is undeniable…‘Social worker’ are two of the most horrifying words in the English language for Indigenous people,” Mukwa Musayett said. 

Last month, Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation confirmed the undocumented remains of 215 children, some as young as 3, were found buried under a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, B.C. The news reiterated what Indigenous communities have been saying for years: thousands of children died after being taken from their homes by the government, Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, and churches, and forced into residential schools, where they faced sweeping abuses and were often punished for speaking their languages and expressing their identities. An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were forced to attend them. 

“Colonization is not over.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to the discovery as a “painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”

Colonialism, though, is ongoing in Canada—hardly a “chapter.” Nunavut NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq told the House of Commons on Friday that “colonization is not over. It has a new name. Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system. The suicide epidemic is the new form of Indigenous genocide.”

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Today, Indigenous children are still vastly overrepresented in the system. In Canada, Indigenous children make up about 8 percent of the population under 15, yet 52.2 percent of all kids in care. The number skyrockets in provinces like Manitoba, where Indigenous children make up 90 percent of all kids with Child Family Services (CFS) , but only about 30 percent of kids total. In B.C., Indigenous children were at one point six times more likely to be seized than non-Indigenous kids. 

The federal government acknowledged this week that there are more kids in care today than there were at the “height” of the residential school system, and called it “unacceptable.”

From residential schools to child welfare

After students left residential schools, they returned home with trauma and often struggled to find and rebuild the relationships that the school system had destroyed, Mukwa Musayett said.

In 1951, social workers were given jurisdiction over child welfare on reserves as a byproduct of changes to the Indian Act. As social workers started to enter reserves, they encountered people fresh out of the residential school system who hadn’t yet obtained access to adequate support, Mukwa Musayett said. 

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“The mandate of the Christian churches running residential schools was to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ and to disrupt culture and family,” she said. “Social workers were horrified when they saw the result of all that.”

Instead of helping residential school survivors overcome trauma and learn parenting skills based on kinship and Indigenous knowledge, social workers started removing kids from Indigenous communities—again. “Their Eurowestern way of thinking and training was absolutely devoid of any Indigenous knowledge...it was like, ‘Look at these poor children, we better put them with nice, civilizing families,’” Mukwa Musayett said. 

“That continued the travesty that Indigenous people were subjected to.” 

Starting in the 1960s, apprehensions of Indigenous children hit all-time highs. 

“What has come to be referred to as the ‘Sixties Scoop’...was in some measure simply a transferring of children from one form of institution, the residential school, to another, the child-welfare agency,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in its findings.

The situation only continued to worsen as residential schools started to close their doors in the 1970s.

Children in care are isolated from their communities, languages, and cultures. The experiences can also trigger difficulties later: kids in care are more likely to have a relative who was in care at one point. Ontario Human Rights Commission found the foster care system, largely staffed by white people, is riddled with anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism, creates a “child-welfare-to-prison pipeline,” and can increase a person’s likelihood of poverty, lower education, and unemployment in adulthood. 

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In Newfoundland and Labrador, one Indigenous father told CBC News about a time when a social worker, accompanied by a police officer, barged into his house and announced his kids were being taken away. "Shut up," yelled the social worker. "I can do it because I can." 

Mary Burton, a Cree woman living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was taken from her family as a child and said she was kept in the foster care system, away from her family, for too long. She experienced racism throughout, she said. “For eight years I was put into situations where I was treated less than human,” Burton previously told VICE World News. “I was told I was going to become one of those girls that end up being drunk and pregnant on Main Street.”

As an adult, Burton said she had to fight CFS for custody of her own kids and grandkids. Her experience taught Burton how to engage with social workers and CFS, so she, along with Michael Redhead Champagne, started Fearless R2W, a volunteer-run, community-based outreach group in Winnipeg that supports families navigating the system.

Fearless R2W is now one of several Indigenous-led initiatives in Canada that aim to keep Indigenous children with their families and communities.

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Most apprehensions don’t take place because a kid is in danger of neglect or abuse. Burton estimates that 85 percent of Indigenous children in care were taken because they were living in poverty. Right now, nearly half of Indigenous children countrywide live in poverty, a number that jumps to 53 percent on reserve—four times the rate of white children, a 2019 study found. 

In 2016, the federal government was found guilty of discrimination for providing less funding and service to Indigenous children than non-Indigenous children. Trudeau is now engaged in a court battle because his government hasn’t followed through after Canada’s Human Rights Tribunal ordered it to pay $40,000 to each victim in 2019. The House of Commons passed a motion this week urging Trudeau to drop the case. Notably, the two ministers in charge of Indigenous affairs declined to vote.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) explicitly recognizes the rights of Indigenous families and communities to raise, train, educate, and care for their own children and referred to forced removal of children as genocide or violence.

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Champagne is a member of Shamattawa First Nation and the other co-founder of Fearless R2W. He put it plainly: “Systems of family separation like residential schools are continuing to this day.” 

“In healthy and strong families, kids know who they are. They are connected to their many relatives, they speak their languages, and know their culture,” Champagne said. “So, they have good self-esteem, their basic needs taken care of.”

Canada has voiced support for UNDRIP, but the declaration is non-binding. In January, the Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children,Youth and Families Act came into force, with the goal of affirming Indigenous sovereignty over child welfare. But Marc Miller, Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services, admitted last week that kids are still being taken from their homes.  

"There are still children being removed, taken into care and dying, and the system is still one that is focused on intervention as opposed to prevention in a way that does not reflect the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples," Miller said. 

Mukwa Musayett confirmed that child welfare funding disproportionately covers child protection investigation units, with significantly less money flowing into support services, including those that address poverty and trauma. 

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“The way the whole child welfare system is set up is really unbalanced,” she said. 

Burton doesn’t think new legislation matters at this point. “All you're doing is you’re giving Indigenous communities a small say in how welfare is created and how Indigenous children are going to be ripped away from their families; you’re still going to put them in a stranger home.” The only way to move forward, she said, is to overhaul the system entirely and give First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities full control over their children. 

“There’s a lot of work that can be done right now to support Indigenous children.”

Experts have recommended several options to do that, with the TRC’s first five calls to action all related to child welfare. One of them is for Canada to implement Jordan’s Principle, which demands equal access to products, services, and supports—laptops for e-learning, health care, and education, to name a few—for Indigenous children everywhere. It was named after Jordan River Anderson, a child from Norway House Cree Nation, who died at age 5 after suffering from a rare disorder, while the provincial and federal governments fought over who should cover his medical costs. 

So far, Canada hasn’t implemented any of the TRC’s five related calls.

“It’s frustrating to have Indigenous parenting so invalidated so often,” Champagne said. “We have really fantastic teachings within our cultures and nations that help us teach each other and our children in a good way… The most logical thing to do is support Indigenous families, support Indigenous kinship systems.”

Non-Indigenous people have a role to play, too, the experts said. Everyone should be reading the TRC findings and calls to action, as well as the final report from the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry. 

“Educate yourself, start a conversation with someone in your family, talk to your children’s teachers: Where is the Indigenous curriculum content?” Mukwa Musayett said.

Call your MP, pressure all levels of government, and demand better, they said.

“There’s a lot of work that can be done right now to support Indigenous children,” Champagne said. “A lot of people are rightly horrified after the 215 kids were discovered, but if they want to do something with their outrage...they can support Indigenous children today.”

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