Justice Murray Sinclair calls for change in child welfare system

The thousands of children in provincial child welfare systems are the focus of five of Justice Murray Sinclair's 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report into the residential school system and its legacy.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission report recommends keeping aboriginal families together

Ending the cycle of abuse

8 years ago
Duration 2:14
Almost half of the 30,000 children in foster care in Canada are aboriginal

The thousands of children in provincial child welfare systems are the focus of five of Justice Murray Sinclair's 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

It's a modern-day crisis that is a direct legacy of Canada's residential school system.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 there were 29,570 children under 14 in foster care. Nearly half, 14,222, or 48 per cent, were First Nations children.

In Manitoba, the issue is often front and centre, since it is home to fully a third of those children, with 10,293 as of March 2014, according to the province.

The overwhelming majority, 87 per cent, are aboriginal. Manitoba is also the province that was rocked, in particular, by the deaths of two children involved with child welfare authorities, Phoenix Sinclair and Tina Fontaine.

Sinclair told the crowds gathered to experience the historic day that has to change. 

"We call on the governments of this country to change the way they deliver child welfare in this country," he said to a wave of applause. 

Sinclair recommended that provinces work to reduce the number of aboriginal children in care and to provide resources so families are not broken up in the first place. He said children should be kept in culturally appropriate environments when they do have to be removed, and culturally appropriate parenting programs should be provided for aboriginal families, among other things. 

High numbers of children in care 

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a national organization that serves aboriginal children and families, said there are more aboriginal children in the child welfare system today than there were at the height of the residential school era, which at any one time was several thousand.

"These children are being removed for factors we could prevent through equitable funding on reserve, by making sure that funding is targeted at the key factors of poverty, poor housing and substance misuse," she said. "If we fail to take those actions on what we know, then we will also carry the burden of not having done what we could have done for this generation of kids." 

The organization has filed a human rights complaint against the federal government for underfunding aboriginal child welfare. 

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said he's optimistic the government and First Nations can work together for the benefit of aboriginal families and reduce the number of children in care. 

"It's a necessity to believe we can," he said. "We can do it in partnership with First Nations leadership and First Nations families."

If not, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said, Canada may be destined to hold another Truth and Reconciliation Commission on its foster system.

"Today we are living in that legacy where it's OK to apprehend children, to cause that disconnection."

Foster mom seeks to break cycle 

Mary Burton knows the cycle well.

The Winnipeg woman was a foster child and is now fostering two boys who are three and five years old. 

She has seen the shattering impact apprehending children has had on generations of families. She says the child welfare system is too quick to break families up. 

Burton says Manitoba's system is far too quick to break up families. (CBC)

"Apprehension is not the cure-all to everything," she said. "There are other ways to help parents." 

She said adequate housing, addiction resources and educational supports for parents are among measures that would help. 

Burton admits she was a little worried herself about her parenting skills. 

"When I first got [the children], I wondered what I was getting myself into," she said. "But now it's a routine and they're really good, enjoying their childhoods, playing constantly, doing well." 

Burton speaks Cree to the boys and wants to teach them their culture and heritage. 

She said it's hard, because many of her own family members suffered abuse in residential schools. 

"I'm learning as I'm teaching," she said, as she pushed the boys on the swings in the playground. 

Burton is keenly aware that what she does at home will echo through her boys' lives. 

"Children learn what they see. If they see somebody who's going to work every day, and there's no alcoholism and there's no drug addicts and there's no sexual exploitation or anything like that happening in the home, when they become adults, that's how they're going to live their lives."