This week, Prime Minister Trudeau was sworn in, appointed his cabinet, and grabbed the attention (again) of the world.
What the media and public figures find so intriguing is that he appointed a cabinet with 15 women and 15 men. They also loved his response to the question of why he did it—“Because it’s 2015.”
While I enjoyed his pithy comment like the rest of us, I was surprised at how validated I suddenly felt to see so many women in positions of leadership and power. It is similar to the way I felt when I watched my first Canadian women’s Olympic hockey game. I was inspired, encouraged, and suddenly more interested in hockey. I grew up (not so long ago) when girls were not encouraged to play hockey because it was a boy’s sport.
With the appointment of a gender balanced cabinet, I was reminded how on a very base level it is critical to see yourself represented in your political institutions and being recognized for achievements in any area or field.
And so, somewhat overshadowed in media coverage of the appointments, I see it as critical that indigenous people are represented by two cabinet ministers: Nunavut and the Inuit are represented with the appointment of Hunter Tootoo as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and First Nations people are represented by Jody Wilson-Raybould as our new Minister of Justice.
With these appointments, and the election of 10 indigenous MPs, it seems that the Truth and Reconciliation report, which Justice Murray Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission laboured over for six years, will have new life. Remember that in the report to come from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there were 94 calls to action; 94 concrete steps that we can take to face our history and start building a better Canada.
I have seen some of these steps starting to take place, such as the recognition of indigenous athletes in sports hall of fame. For those interested, Harry Xulsimalt Manson of Snuneymuxw First Nation near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, was the first aboriginal soccer player inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame (posthumously). The Vancouver Whitecaps held a special ceremony prior to their game on September 9.
While it is heartening to see this action, we cannot forget one of the great festering sores in Canada’s relations with First Nations: child protection or child welfare for indigenous children. This is arguably the area where Canada has the most work to do.
Today, indigenous children are disproportionately represented in the child protection/welfare system across Canada. In 2011, a Statistics Canada study found that 14,225 or 3.6 percent of all First Nations children aged 14 and under were in foster care, compared with 15,345 or 0.3 percent of non-aboriginal children.
In B.C., according to our Ministry of Children and Family Development’s own numbers (October 2009 report), aboriginal children are 4.4 times more likely to have a protection concern reported than a non-aboriginal child; 5.8 times more likely to be investigated; 7.7 times more likely to be found in need of protection; 7.1 times more likely to be admitted into care; and, 12.5 times more likely to remain in care.
If taking aboriginal children and putting them in foster care is not repeating our dark history, it’s hard to say what is. If you do not think foster care is that bad, then perhaps it’s important to know that only 21 percent of children in care graduate from high school. Boys in care are 50 percent more likely to have contact with the justice system; girls are 30 percent more likely to have contact with the justice system.
If that is not bleak enough for you, then know this: if you’ve been raised in foster care, you are 6.5 times more likely than the rest of the population to die between the ages of 19 and 25.
This is the future that we force on Indigenous people when we apprehend their children and place them in foster care. The Truth and Reconciliation Report gives us guidance in how to stop this cycle and there are Indigenous scholars and leaders working hard to change the way the child protection/welfare system works in Indigenous communities.
Ardith Walkem, a lawyer and scholar, of the Nlaka'pamux Nation in the interior of British Columbia, has (with the hard work and assistance of her team) put together a guidebook, which aims to reform the implementation of the legislation governing child protection in B.C. for aboriginal children. Her guidebook aims to give step-by-step instructions to aboriginal communities on how to get involved in child apprehension cases in order to protect their children from being removed from their community.
For those of us working in the child protection area either as lawyers, social workers, legislators, media, or watchdogs, it’s important that we educate ourselves and hear what indigenous communities are saying about the harm that was done to them in the past, how it is being repeated today, and what is necessary for them to move forward. The first easy step to educating yourself is by reading what the Truth and Reconciliation Report has to say about child welfare in indigenous communities today. Another easy step would be to read books like Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk.
Most importantly, we must be very self-critical in our approach to child protection and welfare—and take whatever steps are necessary to support Indigenous communities to protect, heal and continue to care for their families and children.
Laurel Dietz practices family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporation in Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/UnbundledLawyer. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at email@example.com.