The disappearing children of Constance Lake and the woman trying to find them

 ‘I speak for them, the children that cannot speak, I speak for them.’

The streets of Constance Lake First Nation are quiet and bare.

Children used to fill them, running around like kids often do.

But it’s quiet these days on the small northern Ontario reserve about 500 km east of Thunder Bay.

And has been for some time.

“You used to see kids running around. You ride around today, you don’t see that anymore. It’s obvious that there’s something happening,” said Robyn Bunting.

Bunting has seen the impact of Canada’s child welfare system is having on First Nations children first hand.

She spent time in foster care and group homes when she was a young girl.

It was an experience that she has tried hard to forget, but one that has had a direct impact on the work she does today.

“When I was a little girl in care I knew that I wanted to go into this work, to help other kids that were in situations that I’ve been in. I done it everywhere, I done everything I could – 110 percent, I give it everything,” said Bunting.

“I live, eat, sleep, breath child welfare and that’s okay. People say it’s not okay, to love something that much, to love work that much. It’s not work to me. It’s not just a job to me. I don’t know how else to say it – it’s my life.”

Bunting has worked in the child welfare system now for the last 20 years – in communities throughout Ontario.

Today, she serves as the child welfare band representative for her home community of Constance Lake.

She advocates for children in care and helps families navigate the system.

“Over the years … we seen people come to leadership. Families, moms and dads and kokums come to leadership and say, ‘they took my kids, I need help, who can help me?’ And then at the time we didn’t have a band rep program, we didn’t have anyone in our office really to help people like us. So we created this over the years,” said Bunting.

APTN spent a couple days in Constance Lake this past September and most of the streets looked like this: empty. Cullen Crozier/APTN photo

Canada’s underfunding of First Nations child welfare is well known, but it’s not only the federal government that’s failing these children.

First Nations children welfare agencies in Ontario have been assuming more and more responsibility over the years.

Agencies like Kunuwanimano Child and Family Services, which oversees 11 First Nations, including Constance Lake.

It became a mandated child welfare agency in May 2015.

And, according to Bunting, they are repeating the same mistakes mainstream agencies did.

“They’re trying to break my people. You know, I can feel my people and they’re hurt, like I said I ride around and I see the empty streets,” said Bunting.

“My people, they’re good people, they’re strong themselves, they just need a little bit of extra support and that’s what I’m trying to do for them and I can’t do it because, these people, this agency, Kunuwanimano, they don’t want to work with us.”

And the statistics are telling.

The number of children apprehended by Kunu has increased significantly over the last few years, according to Bunting.

In 2016, there were two apprehensions. The next year there were four.

As of today, Kunu has 37 apprehensions that are before the courts.

“There has to be a system developed where we can address all the things that need to be addressed. Such as mental health, the addictions, the family support. We need to support families like this – in child welfare,” said Constance Lake Chief Richard Allen.

Allen has also seen the impact Kunu is having on his community.

He still remembers the original vision for the agency and has his own opinions of what went wrong.

“With Kunu, when we were a partner, we thought we were creating something new and unique. But at the end of the day, from my perspective, it’s only my perspective and I strongly believe it, it is true, they don’t care,” said Allen.

“They don’t care about our children, our families well-being, the mental health of the First Nation. It’s about what’s coming in my pocket, to sustain me, to sustain Kunuwanimano. They’re not really pushing the agenda to say how can I help?”

In the last year, many Constance Lake band members were either terminated, laid off of resigned from the Kunu’s community office according to Bunting and Allen.

As of September, there were about 10 staff members employed there but only two were First Nations, said Bunting.

“They believe their systems are more superior than our systems, but we have to abide by because they say so. Why should we follow a system that we know is already failing? It’s a failing system, this child welfare system,” said Allen.

One problem is the community is not a signatory on customary care agreements, which are only signed by the parents and Kunu.

Bunting said after Kunu as an agreement signed they ask Constance Lake for a band council resolution.

“After it’s said and done,” she said. “If the parents haven’t signed. We do not provide a BCR.”

But they want to be more involved in the process.

“I raised the issue to Kunu a few times on why we are not signatories to the CCA,” said Bunting.

“They never respond.”

APTN reached out to Kunu for comment.

We asked to help explain the increase in child apprehensions.

And what steps it’s taking to rebuild their strained relationship within the community.

They never responded to the questions, as Kunu’s executive director, Shirley Gillis-Kendall, said she is out of the office until Dec. 7. When asked who else is available to talk she never responded.

That didn’t surprise Bunting, who, despite being the child welfare band rep, said she also has a hard time getting answers.

That doesn’t mean she is going to stop pushing.

“I’m a good person and I don’t believe in intimidating anybody, but I’m not going to stop when I know that children at home are suffering. I’m going to do everything I could to help those kids and that’s what I try to do. I speak for them, the children that cannot speak, I speak for them,” she said.

Kerri-Lynn Bunting almost exactly a year ago in Constance Lake. Cullen Crozier/APTN photo

Coming up tomorrow night on APTN National news and

A family tragedy on Constance Lake.

“I need to tell people how it is now,” says Crystal Bunting, whose daughter died by a suicide just over a year ago

“It’s just like, my world is ripped apart.”

That story can now be viewed here.

Video Journalist

Cullen Crozier is an award winning investigative journalist. He joined APTN News in 2008 and has worked for APTN Investigates since 2012. His documentaries have been recognized by the Canadian Association of Journalists, ECPAT Canada, Amnesty International, and the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.

Crystal Hardy is a member of Biinjitiwabik Zaaging Anishnabek. Her Spirit name is Zongwe Binesikwe, which means Sounding Thunderbird Woman. She has worked as a nurse practitioner and educator in Northwestern Ontario. She is working towards a PhD in nursing at Queen’s University on decolonizing health care practices. Crystal joined the APTN news team in August 2020 as the video journalist in Thunder Bay.

Investigative Reporter

Kenneth Jackson is an investigative reporter in Ottawa, Ont. with more than two decades in the business. He got his start in community newspapers before joining the Ottawa Sun in 2007 where he worked the police beat. In 2011, Jackson joined APTN to break the Bruce Carson scandal. The former senior aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried using his contacts in the federal government to sign water deals with First Nations. The RCMP would charge Carson with influence peddling based on APTN’s reporting. The case would make it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld his conviction in 2018. In recent years, Jackson has focused, almost exclusively, on the child welfare system in Ontario. The work has earned multiple awards, including the 2020 Michener Award.