Why home is important to building community for Indigenous people in Canada

Although the last residential school closed more than 20 years ago, there are more Indigenous children in the welfare system today than ever. What is the cost? Tara Williamson

Although the last residential school has closed and compensation is currently being calculated for survivors of The Sixties Scoop, the truth is Indigenous children are still being displaced from their homes at alarming rates.

There are currently more Indigenous children in the child welfare system than there were at the height of the residential schools' era. Racist policies and attitudes of superiority are ingrained in the systems and structures meant to “protect” native children. There is still an underlying assumption that Indigenous mothers, families, and communities are not as good at raising our children as foster families, and ultimately the State.

Any system that takes children out of their communities is also robbing them of their sense of home. Tasha Hubbard’s newest documentary, Birth of a Family, explores this issue through the eyes of siblings meeting each other for the first time. Hubbard follows the family of four — all taken from their mother during the Sixties Scoop — during their first meeting together. 

Despite having grown up separately, they each describe a deep sense of always knowing who they were. Although their Indigenous identities may not have been nurtured in their respective white foster and adoptive homes, they have walked through their lives knowing they were Indigenous and knowing that they had another family somewhere. Another mother. Another home.

In one scene, an elder extends his hand to Betty Ann and says “Welcome home.” The warm generosity of these two words brings Betty Ann to tears. She has waited 56  years to hear them.

Child Welfare and Homelessness

At the end of October 2017, Jesse Thistle released a definition of Indigenous homelessness that breaks this complex social issue into 12 main dimensions. This kind of definition is meant to rightfully frame homelessness in social, political, historical, and contemporary contexts. As I watched Birth of a Family, I began to reconsider my own understanding of Indigenous child welfare as one of homelessness.

From Thistle’s dimensions, I can easily connect the experiences of adoptees and foster kids to the indicators of historic displacement; geographic separation; spiritual disconnection; mental disruption and imbalance; and, cultural disintegration and loss.

The Sixties Scoop and residential schools had as their clear mandate to “civilize” the Indian, or more profoundly, to “kill the Indian in the child.” With this in mind, it’s easy to see how Thistle’s dimensions of homelessness are directly connected to colonial child welfare policies.

I challenge you, if you are brave enough, to imagine your children being taken from you. They will be sent to a foreign country where they will learn a foreign language. You will never show them the best place to go fishing.  You will never sing them your favourite song. You will never teach them the word for love. You will never kiss them goodnight.

A recent study has shown that the mental health outcomes for mothers whose children are apprehended are worse than for those whose children die. Multiply this grief by whole communities, whole nations. The rippling effects of intergenerational trauma cannot be underestimated.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Betty Ann talks about her past.

In the film, Betty Ann recounts the many times she has been asked if she doesn’t think she is lucky to have been raised by a white family instead of her Dene mother. No. She doesn’t. Instead, she feels ripped off. Later in the film, when pondering what could actually be done to right the wrongs of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, she answers “I think the only thing that can really make a difference is if the government stops doing that stuff and if people who aren’t native stop thinking they’re superior.”

What do you think of when you think of home? Home is more than housing. It is family, love, tenderness, teachings, land and place. It is the smell of something that pulls you back to a feeling of safety. It is the knowledge that you belong somewhere in the world.

Birth of a Family reminds us that it is never too late to come home. But, more urgently, it should compel us to be fighting for the rights of Indigenous children to never be taken from their homes in the first place.

Tara Williamson is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised in Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Manitoba). She is an adoptee, mother, aunty, writer, educator and musician and holds degrees in social work, law, and Indigenous governance.