Grand Chief Stewart Phillip grew up not knowing who he really was or where he came from. As a young boy in Quesnel, all the now-58-year-old president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs knew was that he was different from most of his peers.
Phillip, now a grandfather of eight, first met his parents when he was in his 20s. He was less than a year old when he was taken away by the provincial government to be raised by Caucasian foster parents.
“My father came looking for me, and one day he just dropped out of the sky into my life, and he invited me back for a visit,” Phillip told the Georgia Straight. “I went home for three days, and there was an endless stream of relatives who came to our house. Many of the elders that came, they spoke to my dad in our language, and many of the women were crying. They were making motions about a little baby.”
In some ways, according to Phillip, Native children hauled into residential schools were luckier than those raised like him. “The difference is when children were taken from a community, they went as a group—brothers and sisters and cousins,” he said. “When children are taken into care, they go alone. It’s a far more traumatic experience in that regard. They were denied complete exposure to our language and culture. And we don’t come home for Christmas and holidays. In many ways, it’s the untold story.”
Residential schools had mostly shut down by the 1970s. However, a huge number of Native children continue to be taken away from their families. In 2006, the Assembly of First Nations reported that three times as many aboriginal children were in the care of child-welfare agencies across Canada as there were in attendance at residential schools at their height.
The AFN also noted that after reviewing adoptions and placements of Indian and Métis children, Manitoba Justice Edwin Kimelman described the apprehension of children by non-aboriginal child-welfare agencies as “cultural genocide” in a 1985 report.
According to the Web site of Nanaimo-Cowichan NDP MP Jean Crowder, one in 10 First Nations children is in government care, or about 27,000 across Canada.
A report released on February 20 by the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, Broken Promises: Parents Speak About B.C.’s Child Welfare System, also highlights the overrepresentation of Native children in government care. More than half of the 9,271 children in foster care in the province as of November 2006 were aboriginal, according to the report authored by legal researcher Darcie Bennett and lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi. “While only one percent of the child population in B.C. is in care overall, 5.4 percent of the Aboriginal child population is in care,” the authors note.
Physical and sexual abuse account for only about 11 percent of nonaboriginal and aboriginal child removals, the report states. Families lose their children to authorities mostly because of poverty, addiction, mental-health issues, and domestic violence.
“Aboriginal children are nearly ten times more likely to be in care than non-Aboriginal children,” according to Broken Promises. Minister of Children and Family Development Tom Christensen did not return a call.
In a phone interview, Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit recalled that a 2002 agreement between Native leaders and the B.C. government provided for the creation of five regional aboriginal authorities. The concept, according to John, is to transfer the delivery of aboriginal child and family services to Native hands.
“The main purpose of this was to reduce the number of children in care,” John told the Straight. “And the aboriginal authorities are part of that plan, just a small part of the bigger plan. The bigger plan is to return kids or not to apprehend children, period.”
But the number of Native children in care has gone up, John said, noting that the ministry “needs to be honest and up-front with us”.
So far, only two interim aboriginal authorities—one on Vancouver Island and another in the Lower Mainland—have been set up, according to John. “What happens is that governments are very good at throwing the money when the courts say, ”˜Okay, this child is in care,’ ” John said.
Absent from his tribe in his younger years, Phillip rose to become chief of the Penticton Indian Band. An advocate for indigenous rights, he noted that government legislation and policy have historically displaced Natives from their land and resources.
“Without a functioning economy, it’s near to impossible to develop programs and to provide child-care services to prevent the child apprehensions and adoptions,” he said. “In other words, we’ve been greatly economically marginalized. That’s the root of all of the social problems that are evident in First Nations communities.”