BC is failing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first call to action

In a landmark report, governments were urged in 2015 to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care. They failed.

As Canadians once again grapple with the legacy of residential schools, eyes are also turning towards a foster care system in which the over-representation of Indigenous children is getting significantly worse, not better.

Officials have long known Indigenous children make up a disproportionate share of kids in care. The first 5 calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Report call on governments to take concrete steps to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care. But since that report was issued in 2015, the number of Indigenous children in care in the eastern Fraser Valley has actually risen.

In BC as a whole, the number of foster children—both Indigenous and not—has decreased over the last 20 years. But while non-Indigenous foster rates have been more than halved, there has been a slower decline in Indigenous rates. That has left Indigenous children even more over-represented in the system than 2 decades ago, according to figures collected and analyzed by the Current. (Provincial figures to 2019 are available online. Figures for the East Fraser region between Abbotsford and Hope were provided to The Current upon request.)

Across BC, Indigenous kids were 17 times more likely to be in care than non-Indigenous kids in 2019, the last year for which figures are available. That gap has risen substantially since 2002, when Indigenous kids were placed in care at 10 times the rate of other groups. Those trends hold true in the Fraser Valley. Today, Indigenous children comprise 70% of all foster kids in the region, while only 8% of the valley’s population self-identify as Indigenous.

Many have drawn parallels between the residential school system of the past and today’s foster care system. Earlier this month, Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq told the House of Commons: “Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system.”

BC governments have been trying to reduce the number of children in foster care for years, recognizing that kids fare better when they can remain either with their parents or with their extended family. But the figures suggest those efforts have had a much more positive effect on non-Indigenous children.

Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, BC’s Representative for Children and Youth, told The Current significant progress has been made to reduce the number of children in care. But she acknowledges challenges remain. She said Indigenous children tend to spend longer in the system than non-Indigenous kids, which is why the rate of Indigenous children in care has not dropped as fast as it has for non-Indigenous children. “That’s a problem, because kids should not be raised in care.”

Reducing the length of time children spend in care is a complex challenge, she said, and one that is rooted in the lingering trauma associated with residential schools. She said the foster care system needs more resources, as do other parts of the public infrastructure that supports families and individuals.

In a written statement to The Current, BC Minister of Children and Family Development Mitzi Dean said the province is increasing more resources, providing extended families with the same financial assistance that foster parents receive, and boosting funding for alternatives to care like the extended family program.

The foster care system in BC and the Fraser Valley has also come under examination in recent years following several deaths, with advocates saying workers are stretched too thin and oversight is lacking.

Last year, a First Nations teen was found dead in a Abbotsford group home. He had been declared missing for 4 days before he was found in his bedroom closet. Another teen, Alex Gervais, took his own life in 2015, and CBC reported that 2 others died in 2019 shortly after aging out of care with Xyolhemeylh, the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society. Earlier this month, Charlesworth’s office released a long report sharing Skye’s story, a Dene girl who died from an overdose in 2017 on her 17th birthday. She had been in care for nearly 12 years, living in 8 different foster homes, attending 8 different schools, and dealing with 18 different social workers.

Kenneth Jackson, a reporter for APTN who specializes in coverage of the foster care system in Ontario, said the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in BC’s foster system should prompt scrutiny. But he says there is no easy and quick solution. Rather, it requires re-evaluating a whole suite of laws and systems that have outlived residential schools, but which continue their legacy.

“Picture this,” he said. “Picture a First Nation community and put it in a vice. Twist it on both ends and squeeze it, squeeze it, squeeze it. That’s what Canada has done since we arrived here,” he said. “We put Indigenous people in communities, reserves, and we put them in a vice and we squeezed them. And that vice is very tight to this day.

“These communities are still in their healing process. Some are a little further ahead than others, but that vice is still very much there. Even if you remove all the pressure off the vice, that takes time. This is a generational thing.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of his or her residential school experience.

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