Sarah de Leeuw and Margo Greenwood: Apprehensions of Indigenous children linked to misperceptions around neglect

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      By Sarah de Leeuw and Margo Greenwood

      As we write this, as you read this, an Indigenous child is being removed from their family home. From their kin. From their community.

      Right now.

      Not yesterday, not 10 years ago, not in some distant past involving residential schools or day schools or “the sixties scoop”, which you might have heard of.

      Indigenous peoples make up just under eight percent of the Canadian population. But Indigenous children represent more than one-half (51.2 percent) of all foster children aged 0 to 4 in Canada.

      In British Columbia, 68 percent of all children in care are Indigenous children. More Indigenous children are in government care today than were ever in residential schools—even at the height of the residential schooling project.

      We believe removing Indigenous children from their families and communities is wrong. Full stop. Just wrong. It was wrong when removal was done with the explanation that Indigenous peoples needed education. It’s wrong when removals are done with the explanation that children need protection.

      For young children, being removed often means being placed with a non-Indigenous family. For older children, it can mean living alone in a hotel. Or being placed in a group home.

      Many children who are removed face abuse and trauma in the places tasked with caring for them. Apprehensions can scar children for life.

      For the most part, Indigenous children are not removed from their families because they face abuse. Children are removed from their families because child welfare services believe they are being neglected or face neglect.

      Neglect is a very subjective thing to measure.

      Which is a huge part of the problem. Because, as we have written about and collected data about, ideas about what is neglectful can sometimes be coloured by things like racism.

      But you might already know this.

      You might even be bored with what we’re writing.

      As two university professors, one of us a Cree woman who had family in residential schools, the other of us whose dad was born in Holland and whose mother was born in Canada, we regularly hear comments like: “I’ve heard all this before;" “We’re sick of having Indigenous stuff shoved down our throats;” or “I’m just tired of hearing about all their complaining.”

      In November last year, in an online forum across northern B.C. responding to research we’re doing around improving the health of Indigenous people, including addressing high rates of Indigenous children being apprehended, a woman posted “Natives are a drain on the…system…it’s time for them to treat their own and free [people] up to work on those who aren’t alcoholic drug abusing population[s].”

      That kind of sentiment is still common in British Columbia and across Canada.

      Let’s face it; we all know someone who holds these kinds of perspectives. Anti-Indigenous racism forms a sometimes-quiet, sometimes-not-so-quiet, background to many ways people interact with Indigenous communities, families, peoples, and even children. It’s very feasible, our research has told us, that anti-Indigenous racism plays a big part in measuring neglect and, consequently, in the apprehension of Indigenous children.

      To overcome these sentiments, which we have all been steeped in, we need to familiarize ourselves with Indigenous peoples, with Indigenous world views. We need, simply, to unsettle ourselves and learn there is nothing to fear in doing so.

      Attend art shows by Indigenous artists. Read books by Indigenous authors. Make an effort to volunteer with an organization serving or run by Indigenous people. Take a course offered by an Indigenous instructor. Shake up your professional and social circles by ensuring Indigenous folks are part of them. Speak out when you hear anti-Indigenous racism. Celebrate Indigenous voices.

      Most importantly, don’t ever be frightened by prospects of sovereign powerful Indigenous peoples, families, and nations. All our worlds will only get better with more healthy and vibrant people having the chance to love and care for their children.

      Sarah de Leeuw is Canada Research Chair in humanities and health inequities at the University of Northern British Columbia. She will participate June 5 in a panel on teaching and learning after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as part of the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at UBC. Visit for more information. Margo Greenwood is a professor in First Nations studies and education at UNBC.