A Winnipeg mother says she was scarred for life when her first child was taken away at birth by social workers, who told her she was unfit to parent her newborn daughter because she was just 17 at the time.
“I don’t know how one could fully heal from that trauma,” said the woman, now 41, whom The Canadian Press has agreed not to identify because of her family’s involvement in the child welfare system. “Having a baby taken away from birth the bond is broken.”
Statistics Canada says 2021 census data shows Indigenous children accounted for 53.8 per cent of all children in foster care.
This has gone up slightly from the 2016 census, which found 52.2 per cent of children in care under the age of 14 were Indigenous.
At the time, only about eight per cent of kids that age in Canada were Indigenous.
More than three per cent of Indigenous children living in private households in 2021 were in foster care compared to the 0.2 per cent of non-Indigenous children. Nationally, Indigenous children accounted for 7.7 per cent of all children 14 years of age and younger.
Statistics Canada says because of difficulties in collecting census data on First Nations and other Indigenous communities, some caution should be exercised in comparing census years.
In recent years there has been a significant push from Indigenous leaders and child welfare advocates across the country to address the myriad systemic issues contributing to the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in care.
But experts say factors like colonialism, chronic underfunding of child welfare systems, discriminatory practices and poverty remain.
The child welfare system was part of the Winnipeg mother’s life since before she was born. Some of her siblings were taken from her mother, a residential school survivor, as part of the Sixties Scoop. She was allowed to stay with her mother, but she doesn’t know why.
The pain of having her daughter taken would repeat when her second and third children became permanent wards of the province. She says she used alcohol to cope with a family member’s death at the time. Her children were living with their father when workers apprehended them due to poverty, she says.
Years later, when the woman’s granddaughter went into the system and she became pregnant with her fourth child, she knew she needed to break the cycle. She began working with First Nations advocates and parenting groups to learn more about the culture that was stripped from her.
“I’ve done so much healing. I learned about our grief and loss and about positive coping skills,” said the woman, who is now caring for her granddaughter and four-year-old son.
“Learning my culture and traditions really saved me.”
There are about 10,000 children in care in Manitoba and about 90 per cent are Indigenous.
The Winnipeg mother adds that while there have been some improvements in the child welfare system thanks to First Nations authorities and social workers, prevention is still lacking.
“It should be about keeping families together and empowering the parent, they need something to keep the families together.”
Mary Teegee, executive director of Carrier Sekani Family Services in British Columbia, said generations of children have been ripped from their parents through the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, and are being raised without the support of their families, culture or communities.
This has contributed to addictions, mental health issues and trauma, she added.
“This isn’t just because Indigenous people can’t take care of their children. It’s because of generation after generation of attacks on family, class and nation structures.”
Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said without proper investments in prevention and healing, government reforms alone won’t get to the root of the issue.
“Right now we’ve been in a situation where government dictates how things are going to happen,” she said.
“There needs to be free will of our nations to be able to bring children home.”
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government introduced Indigenous child welfare legislation in 2019 and it came into force in 2020.
The legislation is supposed to affirm the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples to exercise jurisdiction over child and family services with the goal of reducing the number of Indigenous children in care.
Indigenous Services Canada says as of July, 37 groups have sent notices of intention to exercise legislative authority and 27 have requested to enter into co-ordination agreements. Out of this, two First Nations have entered into co-ordination agreements with the federal and provincial governments.
Experts say it’s too soon to tell what effect the legislation will have on reducing the number of Indigenous kids in care.
Housing still an issue
Angela Klassen Janeczko calls out to a young woman sitting behind a building in downtown Winnipeg to see if she needs any water or food.
They know each other by name and Janeczko has seen the young Indigenous woman struggle with housing and addiction for more than year.
Janeczko works with the Bear Clan Patrol, a neighbourhood watch group in Winnipeg that walks through streets and alleys looking to help those most in need. She says they have seen rooming houses and apartment buildings become derelict. At the same time, rent has also gone up and nearby houses are selling for record amounts.
It is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people in the neighbourhood, she says, and many are ending up in tents tucked behind buildings, along the riverbank or in small community parks. The COVID-19 pandemic just exacerbated the problem, she adds.
“Treat people with humanity and respect,” Janeczko says, as she hands out some food to another person nearby.
Statistics Canada data shows that the Indigenous population is still growing, although the pace has slowed, and is much younger than the rest of Canada. However, the data says, they are also struggling with housing in a system that’s already stretched thin.
The census says there are 1.8 million Indigenous people in Canada, accounting for five per cent of the total population. The Indigenous population grew by 9.4 per cent from 2016 to 2021, almost twice the pace of the non-Indigenous population.
While the number of Indigenous people in insufficient housing decreased, it is still much higher than the non-Indigenous population.
Almost one in six Indigenous people lived in a home in need of major repairs in 2021, a rate almost three times higher than for the non-Indigenous population, and more than 17 per cent of Indigenous people lived in crowded housing.
Statistics Canada says because of difficulties in collecting census data on First Nations and other Indigenous communities, some caution should be exercised in comparing census years. The agency says it made adjustments to track overall trends.
Wednesday’s census release comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government set housing for Indigenous Peoples as a priority. It was also a part of the agreement between the minority Liberal government and the New Democrats.
The 2022 federal budget committed $4.3 billion over seven years to help improve Indigenous housing, a number the Assembly of First Nations says falls far short of what is needed. The national advocacy organization had asked to see $44 billion to deal with overcrowding and homes in dire need of repair on reserves.
Michael Yellow Bird, dean of the University of Manitoba’s social work faculty, says it is a byproduct of colonization. Forced relocation, a loss of sovereignty and decades of underfunding have contributed to poverty and poor housing for Indigenous people. The trauma and displacement caused by residential schools is also a factor, he adds.
Housing on-reserve also doesn’t work the same as elsewhere, Bird explains, and it can be a complex administrative process for First Nations to work with Ottawa to tackle those long-standing issues.
The effect of unstable and overcrowded housing on- and off-reserve can be the same, Bird says. Poor housing is connected to major health issues, mental health problems, poor education outcomes and higher rates of suicide, he says.
“These things are all so connected,” Bird says. “It’s the demography of these things that we know, that these critical factors are causing a number of different kinds of disorders in communities.”
The Liberals have promised to develop an urban, rural and northern Indigenous housing strategy and have budgeted $300 million over five years so that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation can work with Indigenous communities to build the plan.
Affordability has become an issue in many real estate markets in Canada, but Indigenous people are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be living in a low-income situation.
The census found 18.8 per cent of Indigenous people lived in a low-income household. The rate was highest among First Nations people, particularly those who lived on a reserve.
Nearly one-quarter of Indigenous children aged 14 and younger lived in a low-income household, more than double the rate of non-Indigenous children.
Research shows that Indigenous people are also disproportionately homeless.
Janeczko walks through an alley with a handful of volunteers as the call of “sharp” echoes each time they find a needle. The group picked up more than 325 needles in a couple of hours during the recent patrol. Not every person without a home has addictions, but it can be a way those community members cope, Janeczko says.
Winnipeg has the largest Indigenous population of any major city in Canada and it continues to grow. Janeczko says every level of government has committed to studying the housing problem, but the people most affected need help now.
A sign on a nearby garage reads that a person has permission to live there. The young man inside thanks the Bear Clan volunteers for food and water as they check on him. Inside the garage is a makeshift living area with a couch covered in blankets, a table and a handful of personal items.
Janeczko explains the property where the garage stands used to be a rooming house that had about 20 occupants. When the owner died it was abandoned, she says.
The housing needs in the neighbourhood are immense, so the loss of an affordable rental space left many people at risk of being on the street, she says.
“The housing need is here,” she says.