Paige's death results in damning report, but who will listen?

It is not “care” but “indifference” which characterizes the state of child welfare for First Nations in British Columbia. That’s the conclusion of this week’s report by the Representative for Children and Youth.

'We cannot afford to wait until another child dies to start listening,' says Sarah Hunt

Paige, 19, died of a drug overdose three years after moving to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (B.C. Children's and Youth Representative)

It is not "care" but "indifference" which characterizes the state of child welfare for First Nations in British Columbia.

That's the conclusion of this week's report, Paige's Story: Abuse, Indifference and a Young Life Discarded, by B.C.'s representative for children and youth.

Through the story of Paige, a young woman who died of an overdose at age 19 after a lifetime of being at the whim of this harmful system, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond calls for immediate and widespread change.

The representative acts as a strong witness to the systemic violence that young women like Paige endure, but writing reports after their death is not enough.

We cannot afford to wait until another child dies to start listening. 

As an indigenous scholar who has worked in partnership with native youth for many years, and who was once an outreach worker in the neighbourhood where Paige died, I'd like to suggest that the starting place is not just listening to recommendations from experts like Turpel-Lafond, but listening to indigenous youth themselves.

Paige's story speaks volumes

Paige and her mother moved to Vancouver's downtown eastside when she was 16.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Paige's life was chaotic from the beginning, as she was regularly exposed to violence, neglect, open drug use and inappropriate living conditions.
We know all too well that violence against indigenous women in this neighbourhood is treated as routine, as has been made horrifyingly clear in police treatment of the disappearance and murder of over 60 women from this neighbourhood.

Yet the routine treatment of violence, poverty and instability in the lives of First Nations girls is not unique to the Downtown Eastside.

We see it echoed in Paige's ongoing engagements with government representatives, beginning at birth, in communities all across the province.

This pattern suggests that when it comes to First Nations children, violence is often treated as expected rather than exceptional, regardless of where they live.

As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council stated in a press release, this indifference is "fostered by the ingrained institutionalized racism that discounts the value of some children's lives due to their ancestry."

In addition to witnessing violence and enduring other forms of abuse, Paige navigated numerous other challenges from a young age. She was diagnosed at age two with Marfan syndrome, requiring ongoing medical care for her heart, lungs, and eyes.

Her mother struggled with substance use and mental health issues, for which she sporadically sought treatment. I cannot help but see the lack of adequate support for her 16-year-old mother as yet another failing of youth-serving agencies and systems.

'Acts of strength and resistance'

Yet, throughout the report, Paige's own acts of strength and resistance shine through.

Paige reached out to adults who should have been there to support her. She reported sexual abuse to officials, only to be herself blamed and disbelieved.

She reached out to a counsellor to seek help for depression and substance dependency, only to be met by silence from Ministry representatives.

She accessed counseling, sought out indigenous cultural programs, regularly visited supportive family members, and took it upon herself to maintain connections with trusted adults.

Systemic indifference 'true risk to well being'

While Paige was deemed to be at risk, it was societal and systemic indifference that proved the true risk to her well being.

Rather than seeking permanent stable housing with healthy family members, ministry representatives instead placed her repeatedly in white foster homes which were ill equipped to support her and which ultimately deserted her.

The 40 police reports on Paige during her three years in Vancouver demonstrate the extent of stigma against aboriginal girls, who are more easily seen as criminals than as young people  who deserve to have their basic needs met.

This treatment naturalizes poverty, violence and ill health, placing the blame on Paige rather than on those systems that colluded against her since day one.

Paige's mother was intent on staying connected, even sleeping on the ground outside Paige's foster home in order to be close to her.

This heartbreaking example of the importance of maintaining family connections in the midst of intergenerational trauma demonstrates the ongoing resistance to child welfare legacies, with roots in residential schools.

Indeed, the report makes clear that while Paige's connections to social workers, teachers, and other state representatives varied greatly, family members were central in her life despite their unstable life circumstances and the legacy of intergenerational trauma they endured.

The question remains, what might have enabled Paige to find the family and cultural connections she so clearly desired in a stable, healthy and affirming way?

Engaging First Nation youth as equal partners

Indigenous youth like Paige deserve to be at the centre of any efforts to transform state systems in which the word "care" seems to have lost all meaning.

In Ontario, the Feathers of Hope initiative provides one example of adults seeking direction from young people, opening up space for indigenous youth to take leadership, talk with one another and design action plans for their own care.

The first step in their plan is to engage First Nations youth as equal partners.

For me, being accountable to young people is not just a professional, legal or policy obligation. It's part of my responsibility as a member of my community.

My hope is that Paige's story will serve as a wake up call about the extreme cost of our unwillingness to name systemic indifference for what it is.

Because youth like Paige are paying for our inaction with their lives.


Sarah Hunt is a Kwagiulth scholar currently living in Lkwungen territories, Victoria, B.C.


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