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TRC Calls to Action on Child Welfare: A Historical Primer

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


Throughout the month of October, ReconciliACTION YEG will be exploring the “truth” portion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action on child welfare. [1] Before doing so, we would like to bring you along, dear reader, to reflect upon the historical relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canadian child welfare institutions. We hope to gain a better understanding of how the shadows of history, the colonial child welfare services since 1876, continue to darken child welfare services for Indigenous children today.

Artwork: “Community” by Christi Belcourt


Traditional Kinship Care

For thousands of years, Indigenous communities successfully used traditional systems of care to ensure the safety and well-being of their children.[2]

Long before European contact, Indigenous communities operated their own child welfare systems based on traditional systems of care that centered on the principle of kinship care.[3] These systems were rejected by settlers and characterized as “savage”. Instead, the Canadian government tried to assimilate Indigenous children into colonial society through state-run child welfare systems in a cultural genocide that continues today.[4]


Residential Schools and the Sixties Scoop

In 1876, the Canadian government established residential schools to assimilate Indigenous children into colonial life and eliminate "the Indian problem.” [5] The stories of kidnapping, abuse, and torture of Indigenous children are not mine to tell. However, they have been told and are being told.[6] This is part of the truth that needs to be heard.


From the 1940s until the last school closed in 1996, residential schools evolved into orphanages and child welfare facilities. However, their fundamental purpose — assimilation — remained.[7] At the time, it was the prevailing view that “the best interests of the child” applied equally to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children alike, regardless of their cultural differences.[8] According to this view, Indigenous children were better off going to residential schools or growing up with non-Indigenous families than living in their own communities.[9] Child welfare workers used the colonial definition of “best interests of the child” to legally kidnap Indigenous children from their families and send them to residential schools or foster homes.[10] This was known as the “Sixties Scoop” and lasted well into the ‘80s.[11]


Indigenous Children in Child Care Today

Today, the Government of Canada reports that Indigenous children make up 52.2% of the children in foster care but represent only 7.7% of children in Canada.[12] Indigenous children are twice as likely to be placed in foster homes than Caucasian children because Indigenous families have a disproportionately higher presence of risk factors — according to colonial standards — that substantiate placing children in foster care.[13] Some of these risks are justified.


Inter-Generational Trauma

[T]he effects of the residential school experience and the Sixties Scoop have adversely affected parenting skills and the success of many [Indigenous] families.[14]

The TRC attributes the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system to the inter-generational harm caused by residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.[15] Some survivors hid their pain and showed no weakness in order to survive, but forgot how to feel or express emotions like love. Some grew up believing the racist words and teachings, and started to hate themselves and their traditional practices. Some buried their hurt and anger in alcohol, drugs, or anything to numb the pain. Some were never taught how to cope with the layers of pain they felt, so they vented their rage at their children and spouse through verbal and physical abuse.[16] Indigenous families have disproportionately higher risk factors because some survivors could not nurture their children or teach them love, but rather passed down more hurt and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Today, many children raised by survivors are ill-equipped to raise their own families.


The Long Shadows of History

The TRC’s Calls to Action on child welfare are firmly grounded in these truths. As we progress through the truths about child welfare this month, I ask you, dear reader, to recall the history presented here. I challenge you to consider how the long shadows of this history tarnish Indigenous people’s trust in state-run child welfare systems, how they taint today’s child welfare policies, and how they touch Indigenous children at disproportionately higher rates than non-Indigenous children.


Until next time,

ReconciliAction YEG


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015) [TRC Calls to Action]. [2] Cindy Blackstock et al, "Reconciliation in Child Welfare: Touchstones of Hope for Indigenous Children, Youth, and Families” (Paper delivered at the conference Reconciliation: Looking Back, Reaching Forward--Indigenous Peoples and Child Welfare, Niagara Falls, 26-28 October 2005) (Portland: National Indian Child Welfare Association, 2006) at 6. [3] First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, “Reconciliation in Child Welfare” (2019), online (pdf): First Nations Child & Family Caring Society <https://fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/how-to_guide_-_reconciliation_in_child_welfare_2019.pdf> at 7 [Caring Society]. See also The Survivors Speak, A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015) at 3-12 [TRC The Survivors Speak]. [4] Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, (Winnipeg: TRC Canada, 2015) at 1, 133 and 137-38 [TRC Summary]. [5] Caring Society, supra note 3 at 60 (quoting Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs). [6] See e.g. TRC The Survivors Speak, supra note 3; Robert Wells, “Wahwate: Stories of Residential School Survivors – FULL DOCUMENTARY” (25 October 2016), online (video): YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGrJNUCQ-r4>; and National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, “Every Child Matters: Truth – Act One” (29 September 2020), online (video): YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFTHHtRy8Do>. [7] Ibid at 68. [8] Ibid at 16. [9] Cindy Blackstock, Ivan Brown & Marlyn Bennett, "Reconciliation: Rebuilding the Canadian child Welfare System to Better Serve Aboriginal Children and Youth" in Ivan Brown et al, eds, Putting a Human Face on Child Welfare: Voices from the Prairies (Regina: Prairie Child Welfare Consortium, 2007) at 61. See also TRC Summary, supra note 4 at 139. [10] TRC Summary, supra note 4 at 138. [11] Ibid. [12] Government of Canada, “Reducing the number of Indigenous children on care” (7 June 2021), online: Indigenous Services Canada <https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1541187352297/1541187392851>. [13] Nico Trocmé, Della Knoke & Cindy Blackstock, “Pathways to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in Canada’s child welfare system” (2004) 78:4 Social Science Rev 577 at 594 (“Compared to Caucasian families, Aboriginal families have statistically significantly less stable housing, greater dependence on social assistance, younger parents, more parents who were maltreated as children, and higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse. They are more likely to be investigated for neglect or emotional maltreatment.”) [14] TRC Summary, supra note 4 at 138. [15] Ibid at 135-38. [16] See e.g. Native Counselling Services of Alberta “Home Fire – Ending the Cycle of Family Violence” (20 March 2015) online (video): YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmstyXc6FnI>; and Native Counselling Services of Alberta “Journey Home” (9 September 2019) online (video): YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-q4VepX4vU>.

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