Sunday, August 7, 2011

Still Hanuted by the Resdential School Scandal

This really saddens me.

Last month I shared the story of Jeremy Meawasige, the 16-year-old Native boy with severe and complex special needs who is at risk of being placed in institutional care, not because his family is saying they can no longer care for him but because the federal government refuses to provide the respite funding necessary for his mother, who is still recovering from a stroke, to care for him at home. 

This is something she has done without complaint all for all of Jeremy's life prior to her stroke (and from reading the news reports, it sounds like she had no help at all prior to her suffering a stroke) and is willing to continue to do, as her health allows her. 

It's extremely telling to me that Mom is not simply saying "I've had this stroke, now take care of my son for me here at home" (which, really, it's arguable she has every right to do).  No, now that she is able to get around somewhat with the help of a cane, she is asking for less support than that provided by her Band last year. The sense I get is that she is only looking for short-term assistance to tide her over for her recovery.  Not that, of course, she shouldn't be receiving a significant amount of help with Jeremy anyway, stroke or no stroke.

And yet now the plot thickens Jeremy's story turns even more tragic - not only is the solution seen as institutionalization but institutionalization outside of Nova Scotia.  Not just away from his mother and his home. Not just away from his culture. But in another Province, entirely. Not that we should be surprised, I suppose, given how dismally Nova Scotia has handled the issue of providing appropriate care for children with complex needs.

But, wait, this sad, sad story isn't over.

Now I read that there are more First Nations children in care at this moment than at the height of the residential school system. For any that don't know, the residential schools had a catastrophic impact on Natives and became Canada's national disgrace, for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in 2008.

In the 19th century, the Canadian government believed it was responsible for educating and caring for the country's aboriginal people. It thought their best chance for success was to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. Ideally, they would pass their adopted lifestyle on to their children, and native traditions would diminish, or be completely abolished in a few generations.

The Canadian government developed a policy called "aggressive assimilation" to be taught at church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools. The government felt children were easier to mould than adults, and the concept of a boarding school was the best way to prepare them for life in mainstream society.
. . .

Throughout the years, students lived in substandard conditions and endured physical and emotional abuse. There are also many allegations of sexual abuse. Students at residential schools rarely had opportunities to see examples of normal family life. They were in school 10 months a year, away from their parents. All correspondence from the children was written in English, which many parents couldn't read. Brothers and sisters at the same school rarely saw each other, as all activities were segregated by gender.

When students returned to the reserve, they often found they didn't belong. They didn't have the skills to help their parents, and became ashamed of their native heritage. The skills taught at the schools were generally substandard; many found it hard to function in an urban setting. The aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to years of mistreatment.

And today, 40 years later, after we have supposedly learned from the mistakes of the past, tens of thousands of First Nations children are in foster homes, staying with distant relatives or living in institutions, instead of being at home with their parents, brothers and sisters. Although researchers are unsure how many Native kids are no longer living with their parents, a major study in 2005 pegged the number at 27,500 and, since then, provincial and federal data and empirical reports suggest the numbers have risen.

The scary part? 

That’s easily double the size of the cohort forced away from their homes and into residential schools during the late 1940s and 50s, that brutal period of our history for which we are, supposedly, so apologetic.

So why are Native children eight times more likely to be in care than other Canadian kids?

Why are nearly half of the children in care in British Columbia aboriginal when aboriginals are only about eight per cent of the population?

Why do Native children make up between 10 to 20 per cent of the children in care in Canada when aboriginal people only make up about two per cent of the population?

I know some would say (indeed, I know some who would say) that it's because Native families don't take care of their kids.  That they're too busy out drinking, partying and engaging in criminal behaviour to actually provide physically and emotionally for them.

It's true that a child at risk often comes from a home that is over-crowded, which may not have clean drinking water. It's true that the parents are often not there, or not paying attention.

It's also true that, in some cases, the child at risk is the victim of violence or abuse.

Although more often than not, when the child welfare system steps in, it’s because of neglect. And neglect has more than trivial consequences on a child's future development.

But like nearly every generalization made (hey, I would hate to be accused of generalizing), I seriously doubt this applies to all these families. 

I mean we all know there are white families  families of every race who neglect and abuse their children.  But if this is more likely to occur in the Native community, then shouldn't the question be asked why. 

When it comes to our children, we are told that, there is a reason for every behaviour. That every behaviour has a reason and a purpose. That he or she is not acting inappropriately simply because.  Simply because they want to. Because they choose to.  We are told we have to dig for the root cause of the behaviour.

So shouldn't that same logic apply to these Native families as well?

If it's not okay for me to assume that my daughter is acing totally inappropriate just because she's a bad kid, how can it be any more okay for me to assume that this is a bigger issue in the Native community simply because they're Native?  Unlike myself, who I suppose must be so much better than and above that?

Dig a little deeper and you will find that many Native parents are in their own cycle of trouble, often related to addictions. Or they have not developed the social skills or parenting skills they need to deal with a precarious situation.

Dig a little deeper still and you will find that at school, there will be reading and writing. But not much in the way of library books or gym equipment or things to do after school.

Keep digging and you will find that in remote communities, the volunteer network that the urban poor rely on, such as the Salvation Army, shelters or food banks, is virtually non-existent.

Take a history of poverty and addiction and add in a large dollop of politics  and we might just be on our way to figuring out why this is a bigger issue for Native communities in Canada.

Expert after expert now recognizes that family dysfunction is more broadly rooted in poverty, poor health and the oppressive legacy of the residential school system that robbed the parents of first-hand knowledge of how to raise a family.

And now the supports to bring up kids just properly (if at all) aren’t there.

So, yes, something needs to be done. Who's going to argue with that?

It's interesting to note that in the '70s, a societal shift occurred and child welfare agencies in Canada started devoting resources to prevention and help for troubled families as opposed to removing children from their home as a first resort. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the number of children in care dropping dramatically.

At least that was the case for the rest of us.  But that same approach wasn’t applied toward First Nations.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the caring society, says she sees case after case of First Nations children in trouble being sent routinely into care because that’s where the funding is instead of trying to help families deal with their problems.

It's only recently that the federal government has added a new layer of child-welfare funding directed toward prevention and has started funding a growing number of child welfare agencies actually run by First Nations themselves.

And yet, even that heartening news may not be so heartening.

Because even though Alberta (which invested $98 million over five years for in this new approach) has had some success, with the number of children in the care of First Nations agencies in that province stabilizing, or even edging down slightly, many First Nations are finding that their other child services are so broke that the prevention dollars are sucked away by other more immediate needs.

Sound familiar? It does to me.

Remember Jeremy Meawasige? Remember Pictou Landing First Nations paying for homecare services the first year following his mother's stroke?  And how the band’s programs, Home Community Care and Assisted Living, which serve the entire communities needs, became more and more strapped for cash, making it difficult impossible for them to keep providing the care Jeremy requires while his mother recuperates?

The problem is that not every province has a program similar to Alberta's, although the federal government hopes to achieve that by next year. 

Meanwhile, Jeremy's mother continues the fight to keep her son at home. As I wrote previously, she has launched a formal court challenge of the federal government's decision, asserting that the government is failing to provide adequate and comparable health care services to Jeremy and that this failure to provide comparable services is contrary to Jordan's Principle.

I applaud her courage and strength in taking on this issue and wish her much success, not only for the sake of Jeremy but also for other Native children and, even beyond that, for the entire population of children with special needs (Native or not) living in Canada.

And, sadly, I continue to question when and how we, as Canadians, will actually pay more than lip service to what was set in motion by the residential school system. 

Because until we do demand that the federal government do more to address this issue, we still won't be able to look one another, let alone our Native neighbours, in the eye.  Until something is done, might I suggest that our very identity as Canadians is not quite what we think it is.

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