Nfld. & Labrador

Unacceptable delay for inquiry into Innu children in care, says N.L. children's advocate

A long-promised inquiry into the handling of Innu children taken from their families has not gone ahead, and the list of grieving families has grown. Jackie Lake Kavanagh wants to see it happen now.

Province promised inquiry to grieving families 3 years ago

Jackie Lake Kavanagh is Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate. (Submitted)

A long-promised inquiry into the handling of Innu children taken from their families has not gone ahead, and the list of grieving families has grown in the three years since it was first announced.

Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate, Jackie Lake Kavanagh, called the delays "unacceptable" in a statement Monday afternoon, and prodded the provincial government to take swift action.

"It is very frustrating," she told CBC News.

 "We're coming up on three years and that's far too long for any children to be waiting to have this work begin."

Her message comes after a 15-year-old boy took his own life in a group home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on May 22.

"The recent death of an Innu youth by suicide and while in care further underlines their sense of urgency to get this process moving," Lake Kavanagh wrote. "But it should not be a sense of urgency for just the Innu. It should trigger a sense of urgency in all of us. These are vulnerable young people who have been pushed to the margins for far too long and they need all of us to stand with them. The long wait for change continues."

Kavanagh travelled to Nain in 2019 to table a report titled "A Long Wait for Change," which dealt with Inuit kids in care — a group separate from the Innu, but experiencing similar problems with children being sent far away from home to be with foster families.

"We know that there are many things that can be done in the system without having to wait for an inquiry," she said.

 "I would like to see more action and more activity with Innu communities and young people at the centre of those discussions."

A foster mother in Roddickton walks with two Aboriginal children from Labrador. File photo. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

When the review began, there were 1,005 children in care in the province. A massively disproportionate number — 345 of them — were Indigenous children.

Kavanagh said she chose the report's title very carefully.

"It is troubling that many of my findings were neither new nor unique to this province. However, it put many issues in one place, and in a local context," she said on Monday.

"And now here we are again. The Innu are still waiting three years after the provincial government made a commitment to establish a formal Inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in the same system."

The province's decision to approve an inquiry came after several teenagers died upon returning to the community from foster homes in Ontario between 2015 and 2017.

The final straw was the death of 15-year-old Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh, son of former Innu deputy grand chief Simeon Tshakapesh.

His family's calls for an inquiry were answered in 2017, with the province saying it would start an inquiry by the end of September that year.

It didn't happen.

Never more important than now

Three years later, it still hasn't happened.

Innu communities have continued to suffer waves of suicide attempts in the ensuing years. In October, the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation declared a suicide crisis, after 10 attempts in the small community of less than 1,300 residents in the span of a few days.

Lake Kavanagh said the appropriate time to act would have been years ago, but it's not too late to make immediate changes.

Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh was an avid guitar player. He took his life in May 2017. (Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh/Facebook)

"We know that some changes can be made immediately before the outcome of an inquiry to make a difference in these children's lives," she wrote. "Innu leadership has been clear that it expects a public process to build fundamental systemic change for the future."

Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich, in a statement issued Monday, thanked Kavanagh "for standing with us."

"Innu families and our communities have waited too long, this inquiry is needed now, systemic issues must be investigated and addressed, this inquiry must happen," reads the statement.

As social unrest sweeps the globe with people pushing for systemic changes, the child and youth advocate lent her voice to the discussion locally.

"It has never been more important than now to move to collective action for Indigenous children and youth."

In the House of Assembly Monday afternoon MHA's from Labrador pressed the province on why there was such a lengthy delay. 

The PC member from Torngat Mountains, Lela Evans, and NDP MHA for Labrador West, Jordan Brown, called on Dwight Ball to get the inquiry moving. 

"We have not been procrastinating," the Premier told the House adding that it was important to get the federal government involved -- which took a long time as they hammered out the terms of reference. 

Ball said it is currently looking for a commissioner to head up the inquiry. 

"This provincial government is committed to making sure that this inquiry is done."

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