Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

The monster in our midst: Reckoning with the path between residential schools and foster care

A long-awaited inquiry into Innu children and the child custody system is finally moving forward. As John Gushue writes, the spectre of residential schools that closed years ago still hangs in the air.

Indigenous children are far more likely to be taken from their homes than others

Sheshatshiu Chief Eugene Hart was among those who wore T-shirts on Thursday inspired by the revelation of remains found at a residential school in Kamloops. B.C. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

They came to Confederation Building with a purpose, and a message — one that was hard to miss from the T-shirts they wore. Not typical attire for a meeting, but Thursday's announcement about an inquiry into why so many Innu children wind up in foster care, and what happens when they do.

"Every Child Matters," the back of the T-shirts said, just above the number 215. On the front of the shirts was a message: "To honor the children who survived Indian residential schools and to remember those who never made it home."

Former Innu Nation grand chief Anastasia Qupee was among those wearing those orange T-shirts — and is now one of three commissioners who will lead the long-awaited inquiry.

The colour orange has become a powerful symbol in Canada to remember the damage of the residential school system — a front-burner issue across the country, particularly since May, when a B.C. First Nation revealed that ground-penetrating radar had detected the remains of 215 children buried at a former school in Kamloops.

Four years after it was promised, the Newfoundland and Labrador government got rolling with the Innu children inquiry. Former premier Dwight Ball announced the plan for the inquiry after a series of specific tragedies that involved suicide, addictions and overdoses.

Anastasia Qupee is one of three commissioners who will study how Innu children have been treated in the child custody system. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The new inquiry will not be directly studying residential schools, but there are obvious connections between that system and the foster-care system in which Indigenous children are far, far more likely to be taken from their parents than other children. Typically, almost a third of the N.L. children in care are from Labrador, even though Labrador represents only about six per cent of the population.

Alarmingly, most of the Labrador children in care are from Indigenous families. In a report earlier this week, Malone Mullin reported that 340 of the 970 N.L. children most recently counted in care were Indigenous.

Mary Ann Nui, deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation, said when she learned of the Kamloops discovery, she was overwhelmed with emotions, and spoke about a cycle of trauma that is deeply connected to the residential schools and continues today in the child custody system.

WATCH | Mark Quinn reports on Thursday's announcement of commissions who will lead the inquiry into Innu children in care: 

Emotions run high as N.L. moves forward on inquiry into Innu children in care

2 years ago
Duration 2:38
Mark Quinn reports on how three commissioners will soon be hearing from witnesses about the impact of the child custody system on Innu communities and families

"When the 215 discovery was [announced], when I was informed by it, I quickly went out of my office to my granddaughters, and the four-year-old asked me, 'Why are you crying?' And they wiped my tears and I said, 'I just want to tell you I love you,'" Nui said.

Ball announced the inquiry in 2017 in the wake of a series of investigative stories that CBC News carried on why so many Indigenous children in Labrador are in care, and on the grim realities faced by families that get caught up in care.

A monster in the system

It's been six years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented its final report.

Murray Sinclair, the commissioner of the report, has been speaking out repeatedly about persistent problems — including a child custody system that effectively took over from residential schools in "correcting" Indigenous families.

Murray Sinclair, who retired from the Senate earlier this year, remains vocal about the amount of work Canada needs to do on Indigenous reconciliation. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

"The monster that was created in the residential schools moved into a new house," Sinclair said at a conference in Calgary in 2018.

"And that monster now lives in the child welfare system."

For reasons of mandate, the five residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador were not included in the TRC report, as they were all operating before Confederation with Canada in 1949. A subsequent class-action lawsuit, though, was finally settled in 2016, after winding its way through the courts for the better part of a decade.

The five schools in this province all closed years ago. The Makkovik Boarding School closed first, in 1960, while the Lockwood School in Cartwight shut down in 1964. They were followed by the Nain Boarding School in 1973, the St. Anthony Orphanage and Boarding School in 1979 and the Yale School, in North West River, in 1980.

There are haunting memories about those institutions, which were called "schools" but felt more like penal institutions for families, as children did not attend them so much as they were taken from their homes and shipped there.

"Children at the dorm were not allowed to speak their mother tongue," testified Michael Sillett during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, about his painful time at the school in North West River. "I remember several times when other children were slapped or had their mouths washed out for speaking their mother tongue; whether it was Inuktitut or Innu-aimun. Residents were admonished for just being native."

Housing, overcrowding among issues

The forcible removal of children from homes is never an easy thing to do, and sometimes is necessary. But Indigenous leaders and families say those moves happen too easily, in part because of disrespect and racism but also because of a fundamental lack of resources in the communities themselves.

Richard Pamak, a leader in the Inuit community of Nain, pointed to poor housing in the community during an interview with CBC's Terry Roberts in 2017. Overcrowding is another issue: Pamak said about 40 per cent of the homes in Nain are occupied by multiple families.

Community leader Richard Pamak, seen during a 2017 interview, says Indigenous communities like Nain do not have sufficient supports for families in crisis. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

For Pamak, it's important to look at broader issues when considering child protection, including how apprehension of children happens too frequently.

"They have to … do more preventive work with families before it comes to the point where the children have to be taken into care," he said.

Terry Roberts's investigation in 2017 revealed to what extent Indigenous children were being put into care, but also where they went. Often, the children are sent out of Labrador. At the time, the Northern Peninsula communities of Roddickton and Englee, with a combined population of about 2,000 people, had some 45 foster-care homes, with 55 children.

It's critical to note that many of the people who sign up for foster care were providing safe, secure homes for children who had been in crisis. A foster mother that Terry interviewed — we called her "Jane Smith" because we cannot identify her — spoke emotionally about the children she was looking after, who she said were welcomed by the community. "They're loved. They're adored. They're involved," she said.

At the same time, it's impossible to overlook the pain in communities where children have been removed and kept far away from their families.

Many of the houses in Nain are in need of repair, and are home to more than one family, says Pamak. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Provincial Child and Youth Advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh is still waiting for the Newfoundland and Labrador government to complete any of the recommendations she made in 2019 to improve foster care. Action is at least underway on the vast majority of them. 

In an interview with CBC reporter Malone Mullin, she was blunt: the foster-care system is doing damage to Indigenous communities and culture, she said.

"This really is a reflection of the whole discussion that's happening now around colonialism and the impact on Indigenous communities, the removal of children," Lake Kavanagh said.

"They lose connection to their language. They lose connection to their traditions. I think we've seen that that is so inherently harmful."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School crisis line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour line: 1-866-925-4419.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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