Capturing the highlights of our first speakers' series event.
On Thursday November 29, the Indigenous Affairs Student Initiative (IASI) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy hosted its inaugural event. Keynote speakers Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario and University of Toronto professor and Verne Ross, Instructor and Indigenous Knowledge Keeper discussed historical Canadian policy regarding indigenous child welfare and how Canada can and must improve in the future.
“Have we actually begun the journey of reconciliation or are we just clearing our throats?”
Rae delivered a brief but comprehensive overview of Canadian policy toward indigenous
peoples beginning with the biological catastrophe initial settlers wrought. He elaborated how settlers used the dual concepts of terra nullius and the nascent false “science” of Eugenics to "otherize" and then subvert indigenous Canadians. Rae methodically chronicled how these early acts led to the establishment of the notorious residential schools in the 1850s due to the belief that indigenous parents couldn’t properly raise their own children, yet the children could “still be saved.” Only 150 years later did the last residential school close. Rae further discussed the “60s scoop” when provincial and federal governments snatched indigenous children from their families and put them “anywhere else”. Rae also spoke to the humanitarian crisis in indigenous communities caused by the failed child welfare system. He described how the policy of acting “in the best interests of the
child” didn’t account for the different or “non-tradition” (to non-indigenous Canadians) family networks in which many indigenous children are raised. Furthermore, lack of governmental will to adequately fund programs and interventions has resulted in an extreme per capita deficit for indigenous compared to non-indigenous Canadians.
In Caring Society v Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal held that the government had systematically discriminated against First Nations people by deliberately underfunding child welfare on reserves. Rae cited the government’s foot-dragging following this judgment to reiterate Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott’s declaration that: “We are facing a humanitarian crisis in this country where indigenous children are vastly disproportionately over-represented in the child welfare system.” Rae concluded his remarks with the sobering fact that more indigenous children remain in care today than in residential schools during their heyday. He left the audience to ponder: “Have we actually begun the journey of reconciliation or are we just clearing our throats?”
Following the former premier, Mr. Verne delivered powerful and wrenching personal stories
from his time as a social worker. Verne described himself as “being a part of that
intergenerational trauma.” He stated, “We’ve come a long way but it’s policy that set what
those Social Workers were forced to do. It’s why I wanted to become a Social Worker myself.” Verne proceeded to describe the indigenous healthcare crisis in the 1980s and the role that social and healthcare workers played. He elaborated on the detrimental effect that the “best interests of the child” policy as defined by non-indigenous peoples effected. As Verne explained, the problem was that social workers didn’t understand reserves nor the oft-
discussed social determinants of health as they were on reserves. He detailed the uphill
struggle he faced in working to educate doctors, nurses and social workers.
When we heard the word [social workers] we were afraid of them because we knew
what they were going to do. When they would come to the reserve my auntie would hide
us and tell us ‘don’t make a sound or they’ll take you away.’
Those realities were so real and there was so much hurt behind those words.
Both Verne and Rae spoke to the importance of truly reckoning with the past and of the
need for governments and indigenous communities to jointly co-create solutions. Verne
concluded, “Challenging racism is not easy, dealing with attitudes is not easy but once you
begin to work with one another you can accomplish a lot, but you cannot ignore history, you
cannot say that colonization didn’t happen.”
Today indigenous Canadians are the fastest growing demographic in the country.
However, while indigenous Canadians make up 8% of Canadian youth, they comprise 52% of
those in foster care. Much work remains to be done.
IASI is profoundly grateful to Mr. Rae and Mr. Verne for their informative and moving
perspectives and to all community members who joined us on Thursday. We very much look
forward to continuing the dialogue over the coming weeks and years and working towards true justice for indigenous Canadians. As Mr. Rae said, “We need to keep working toward becoming the kind of country that treats every Canadian the way that all Canadians want to be treated—only then will we have a country which we can all be truly proud of.”
Blog by: Nico Richards