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Child Welfare to Incarceration: breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Yesterday we discussed residential schools and the sixties scoop as a historical backdrop to the current state of child welfare for Indigenous children. Today, we will explore the link between Indigenous children under child welfare and their increased risk of incarceration when they grow older. As you read through this post, I ask you to recall that many of the Indigenous children in custody of child services today grew up in broken homes and shattered communities. The dark shadow of residential schools and the sixties scoop touched many of their lives.

Last year, Team ReconciliACTION YEG assigned the government a failing grade in their implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Call to Action #1,[1] which calls upon all levels of government to reduce the number of Indigenous children within the child welfare system.[2] In 2019/2020, only 10% of Alberta’s population were Indigenous children,[3] yet they comprised 69% of the children under the control of child welfare services.[4] Despite the TRC’s call to reduce the number of children within child welfare services, in 2020/2021 the number of Indigenous children under the control of child welfare increased by 5%.[5]

How can this be?

Recall that Indigenous children have disproportionately higher presence of risk factors that are used to justify taking them into the care of child welfare services: poverty, poor housing, substance misuse, mental health and domestic violence. Further, these risk factors are often linked to survivors of residential schools and the sixties scoop, or intergenerational harm.[6] The Canadian government used residential schools and the sixties scoop as a mechanism to not only separate Indigenous children from their culture, language, and traditions, but to also destroy Indigneous families.[7] Institutionalization of Indigenous children in child welfare systems continues to disconnect them from their roots and allows the cycle of harm to continue unabated. More seriously, this cycle propels young children into a future life of crime.

In 2018, Indigenous youth made up 8.8% of the Canadian population, however, they consisted of 43% of incarcerated youth.[9] This is a staggering overrepresentation, but less distressing than the adult incarceration rates. In the same year, Indigenous adults made up only 4.5% of the Canadian population.[10] However, they accounted for 31% of provincial and territorial incarcerations and 29% of federal incarcerations.[11]

The TRC tells us that the solution lies in reconnecting Indigenous children to their communities and culture.[12] Thankfully on January 1, 2020 Bill C-92, An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Metis children, youth and families came into force.[13] This powerful statute is the first of its kind to recognize Indigenous peoples’ inherent jurisdiction over their own children and family services as an Aboriginal right, which is protected under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.[14] It empowers organizations like the Native Counselling Services of Alberta, which provides traditional systems of care to children, their families, and their communities.[15] But this statute is still new and has been criticized for insufficient funding and failing to recognize the inherent jurisdiction of Indigenous peoples more broadly.[16] Nevertheless, this statute is a beacon of hope to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliACTION YEG

Artwork: Oskánhe itwehse | We Are Walking Together by Aura

[1] ReconciliACTION YEG, “Five Years After the TRC: Is Canada Making The Grade?” (March 26, 2021), online: <>

[2]Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, (Toronto: James Lormier & Company Ltd., Publishers, 2015) at 319.

[3]Government of Alberta, Children’s Services, “Child Intervention Information and Statistics Summary 2020/21 Fourth Quarter (March) Update” (May 11, 2021) online: <> (pdf).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter Goffin, “Why Canada is reforming Indigenous Foster Care” (July 11, 2021), online: BBC World Service <,)%2C%20a%20national%20advocacy%20organisation>

[7] Supra note 2 at 137.

[8] Ibid at 138.

[9] Jamil Malakieh, “Adult and Youth Correctional Statistics in Canada, 2018/2019” (December 21, 2020), online: Statistics Canada <>

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Supra note 2.

[13] Koren Lightening Earle and Hadley Friedland, “Bill C-92 Compliance Guide for Social Workers and Service Providers”, (2020) online: Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge <> (pdf).

[14] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 7, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.

[15] See Native Counselling Services of Alberta:

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