First Nations leadership concerned about who will be included in child welfare ruling

First Nations leadership in British Columbia is calling on the Canadian government to “do the right thing” and ensure nobody is left behind in the recent ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 

Former youth in care says what she wants to see is substantive change to the child welfare system

Bridgitte Lopez spent time in foster care as a child. Now an adult, she currently lives with her mom in Vancouver. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC News)

First Nations leadership in British Columbia is calling on the Canadian government to "do the right thing" and ensure nobody is left behind in the recent ruling from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. 

It's still unclear exactly who will qualify for compensation and how that money will be distributed.

On Friday the tribunal rules that Ottawa must pay $40,000 to every First Nations child who was removed from their family while living on reserve, based on the 2016 tribunal ruling that found Canada was discriminating against First Nations children by under-funding the on-reserve child welfare services. 

The ruling currently states those who were in care as of Jan. 1 2006, will be eligible but the end date has yet to be determined. The potential cutoff is what concerns the chiefs.

Leaders like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs want a commitment from Canada that compensation will be provided "on a principled basis to all of the children, youth, parents and grandparents who have suffered discrimination, without restricting it to particular years or cutoff dates."

In total, it's estimated that upwards of 50,000 children may be affected by this ruling. The First Nations Leadership Council in B.C. says upwards of 20,000 children, youth, parents and grandparents may be eligible for compensation in the province alone. 

The tribunal also ordered compensation for each "parent or grand-parent" — if the latter was the primary caregiver — whose children were taken from their home "unnecessarily." Each should get $20,000, plus an additional $20,000 for every child taken, said the ruling.

That caveat that they must have been removed "unnecessarily" does not apply to their children.

'I don't really care about the money' 

Bridgitte Lopez knows she might be entitled to receive compensation but, for her, the most important outcome of the human rights tribunal case would be that substantive changes are made to the child welfare system. 

"I, to be honest, don't really care about the money. I heard about it, but I really do think that they need to be doing policy changes," she said. 

Lopez was in and out of foster care while growing up on her reserve near Burns Lake, each time taken hours away from her parents and community and placed with non-Indigenous foster families where she felt disconnected from her home and community. 

Now 23 and living with her mom in Vancouver, Lopez still vividly remembers each time she was taken away. 

She recalls how the social worker would show up at her house with the RCMP, a police cruiser escorting her away until they got to the highway. She was just four years old the first time she was apprehended. 

"It was very, very hard for me. It was the first time I had spent away from my family," she said. 

Each time she was taken she says it felt like there were other options that could have been explored — for example, other possible placements with extended family or community members that would have allowed her to stay in her community, surrounded by people who loved her and by her own culture. 

Stigma of being apprehended

She couldn't understand why she was being taken away or what social workers meant by saying her home or parents were "unfit" in some way. Instead she felt like she'd done something wrong to be taken away and tried to be on her best behaviour while in care hoping that would be the key to being allowed to go home, she said. 

Lopez grew up on her nation's reserve in the Burns Lake area in Northern B.C. (Kamloops/wikimedia)

Lopez thinks her apprehensions could have been prevented if there was more support for her parents  and family — especially for her mom, who remained her primary caregiver after her parents split. 

"For me, I felt like there just could have been better options. If they felt that my mom had a problem, they should have approached her with a solution instead of doing what they did, taking me out of the environment completely," she said. 

Still Lopez feels she had it easy compared to other kids who've gone through the child welfare system. She's heard the stories about sexual abuse, about kids who don't get to go home — she remembers a former classmate who died of an overdose and finding out she'd just aged out of care. 

But Lopez also realizes her own experiences seeded deep anxieties in her at a young age, feeling like social workers were watching her and her family "like vultures" each time she was able to return home, like there was a stigma and shame attached to coming home with everyone knowing she'd been "taken away." 

When asked what she sees at the root of her involvement with the child welfare system Lopez is quick to say the word "colonialism." 

It's a word acknowledged by the human rights tribunal, which states in its ruling that it "recognizes the shame and the pain and suffering experienced by children, families and communities who were deprived of [the] vital right to live in their families and communities as a result of colonization, racism and racial discrimination."

Comparison to residential schools

Lopez says she's felt shame, as well as anger about being taken away and put in foster care. But she doesn't blame her parents for what happened. She's fully aware of the deep traumas her mom experienced in residential school and says what her family really needed from people working in child welfare during her childhood was compassion and support to stay together. 

Looking forward, she says it's up to Canada and the provinces to make sure things are improved and that history doesn't continue to repeat itself — comparing the harms created in the foster care system as those experienced by children in residential schools. 

Lopez's mom attended the Lejac Residential School, seen here. She also was taken away from her family to go to the school. (National Centre for Truth and Reconcilation)

Lopez remembers sitting through the public hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and understanding all those stories about being taken away. 

She said it was overwhelming to see "just how many people my mom's age remember being young and taken away from their families and that's all that I remember is being young and being taken away from my family," she said. 

"As a kid I was thinking, I just want my mom."

Lopez says she'll be watching for further developments from the human rights tribunal to see what kind of changes take place and if she is eligible for compensation. Updates on next steps are expected sometime in December. 

The tribunal ordered Ottawa to enter discussions with the First Nations Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations — who both filed the initial human rights complaint in 2007 — to determine the best independent process to distribute the compensation.

There is also a separate and still pending $3.05-billion class-action lawsuit that was filed in Federal Court against Ottawa in March for discriminating against First Nation children by under-funding on-reserve child welfare services.