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History repeating

Rob Shaw: Two recent reports highlight the harm perpetrated against First Nations children in BC to this very day.
Witnessing ceremony to honour 215 children
They were each just a child. (BC Government Flickr)

Canadians were horrified at the discovery last month of the bodies of 215 children at the site of the former residential school in Kamloops, and the uncomfortable questions it raised about the country’s history of death, assimilation and cultural destruction against its Indigenous population.

But two recent reports by B.C.’s independent watchdogs are a stark reminder that the harm being perpetrated by the state against First Nations children continues to this day.

Children’s representative Jennifer Charlesworth cited a “direct connection” between the residential school tragedy and the ongoing over-representation of Indigenous children in B.C.’s child welfare system, as part of a report into the overdose death of a 17-year-old aboriginal girl named Skye, who was failed by the system.

“They are different chapters of the same troubling saga — the story of colonialism and the devastating damage it has done, and continues to do, to Indigenous children, families and communities across Canada,” she wrote in her report.

“The children found in Kamloops were separated from their parents, siblings, extended families, territories and cultures as a result of the residential school system that ripped them from their homes and incarcerated them in abusive and dangerous facilities.

“Skye...wasn’t born until 2000, four years after the last Canadian residential school closed its doors. But she, too, was removed from her mother, sister, extended family and culture as she became part of what many have described as the modern-day residential school – the child welfare system.”

Charlesworth singled out the “intergenerational trauma” that our modern-day provincial systems still don’t understand or address well enough.

That included Skye’s grandmother being taken from her family in the “Sixties Scoop” - a time in which the federal government authorized a mass removal of Indigenous children from their communities and into state care. That affected Skye’s mother, who suffered substance use, and in turn her need to give up Skye into care at an early age.

B.C.’s child welfare system then failed to recognize the impact of all of this on Skye, who was ripped from her extended family and culture before being moved 15 times into eight different foster homes, eight schools and 18 different social workers during 12 years in the system.

Social workers focused so much on trying to get Skye adopted, and repeatedly failing, that she couldn’t reconcile with her mother before she died nor was she returned to her ancestral community or extended family.

Skye ended up struggling with substance use, and died of a suspected overdose at a friend’s house in Nanaimo on her 17th birthday.

Charlesworth said she chose Skye’s story because it is representative of many other First Nations children in the system.

“Colonialism still reaches into families – through the intergenerational trauma that too often goes unrecognized or ignored and therefore unsupported, and through structural bias and systemic racism – to negatively affect the services provided and by extension the outcomes for children, youth, parents and grandparents,” she wrote.

“The intergenerational damage of colonialism on Skye’s family was profound.”

Charlesworth also wrote that colonialism still has a “strong influence on the B.C. child welfare system.”

Indigenous children represent fewer than 10 per cent of B.C.’s population but 67 per cent of those in government care - meaning they are 18 times more likely to be taken by the state than non-Indigenous children.

This dramatic overrepresentation of First Nations children in care was also the subject of a report Tuesday by B.C Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

Chalke examined how children aged 12 to 17 are treated in B.C. youth detention facilities, and discovered a three-fold increase in the average time they are forced into solitary confinement in recent years in the province’s largest youth centre, located in Burnaby.

Who does this affect most? Indigenous children, who make up 49 per cent of the kids in custody facilities.

It’s likely an Indigenous child who is put into solitary confinement for an average of 108 hours - inside a jail cell, with the lights on 24 hours a day, their food served through a slot in the door and almost no access to school or family. Often their clothing is forcibly removed. If someone comes to provide mental health support they talk to the children through the food slot in the door, Chalke found.

It gets worse when a child in custody is put into isolation due to risk of self-harm. Most of those cases are First Nations girls, found Chalke.

”These prolonged periods of separate confinement in response to self-injury were experienced almost exclusively by female youth and mostly by Indigenous and racialized female youth,” he wrote.

This mirrors other statistics in B.C., which show an Indigenous person is five times more likely to be incarcerated than a non-Indigenous youth.

Once inside the jail, the system fails them again.

“Youth in custody, who almost always have histories of trauma and abuse and are disproportionately Indigenous or racialized, are some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” wrote Chalke.

“When youth in custody are separately confined, they have little recourse to assert or protect their rights.”

Chalke recommended a cap of 22 hours of solitary confinement for kids, independent oversight and more culturally-appropriate trauma services for Indigenous youth, including access to elders.

B.C.’s Children's Minister Mitzi Dean in both cases said she was disturbed by the reports and the continued over-representation of Indigenous youth in government care.

She said she’s working on reforms, but they will take time and will require extensive consultation with First Nations leaders.

That’s little comfort to First Nations leaders, who have watched as provincial and federal government policies have worsened the intergenerational trauma their communities have faced for decades.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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