In the wake of the tragic reported discovery of an unmarked burial site in Kamloops, B.C., the Liberals are facing tough questions about ongoing harms being suffered by Indigenous children in the child welfare system — a system an Inuit MP says is no different from residential schools.
Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, who represents Nunavut, said she has seen far too many people in her territory dying by suicide and children being taken from their homes and placed in the child welfare system.
She took issue with politicians this week portraying the horrors inflicted on Indigenous children by the Canadian government as "historic wrongs" when speaking of the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation's discovery of unmarked graves believed to contain the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School.
"Colonization is not over. It has a new name. Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system. The suicide epidemic is the new form of Indigenous genocide," Qaqqaq said in an emotional address in the House of Commons Thursday.
She shared bone-chilling details of Inuit families in her territory left to clean the remains of a loved one who died by suicide.
"The residential schools and genocide waged against us has evolved into the foster care system and the suicide epidemic we see today," she said. "Indigenous genocide is a 21st century problem."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several of his cabinet ministers acknowledged Friday that First Nations, Inuit and Metis children are indeed still being taken from their families in disproportionately high numbers and placed in foster care.
Trudeau called this an "unacceptable" situation that must end.
"The ongoing removal of kids from their communities to live with foster families, to go to other cities or towns where they lose their culture, they lose their language, they lose their identity, needs to stop," Trudeau said.
Focused on intervention
Since the passage of Bill C-92 in 2019 — a bill that was drafted to counter the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in foster care — Ottawa has been working to empower Indigenous communities to keep their at-risk children and youth in their home communities with their own language and culture, Trudeau said.
And yet, Ottawa's Indigenous child welfare legislation has not stopped First Nations children from being placed in foster care, said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. He called it a "broken child care system."
While acknowledging Ottawa's role, both he and Trudeau also pointed to provincial systems, which are largely responsible for administering social services programming such as child welfare.
These provincial systems are still far too focused on intervention when they encounter a child or youth at risk, Miller said.
I am here in an institution that has tried to eliminate my people for the last 70 years, standing up to say that the federal government is responsible for the ongoing colonization happening. - MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq
"There are still children being removed, taken into care and dying, and the system is still one that is focused on intervention as opposed to prevention in a way that does not reflect the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples," Miller said.
"If this is something people think will take a short period of time, they're not understanding the gravity of the situation. It will take the full participation of provinces that run a number of these child care systems, the transformation of their own laws and the lifting up, foremost, of Indigenous laws across the country."
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett also acknowledged the removal of Indigenous children from their parents and their placement in homes away from their communities is a current reality for too many Indigenous families and a "present danger to children."
Indigenous children account for 52.2 per cent of children in foster care in private homes, according to 2016 census data. Indigenous children make up only seven per cent of the youth population in Canada.
'We want this stopped': Bennett
"There are more kids in care now than there were at the height of residential schools and it's unacceptable and harmful," Bennett said.
"We want this stopped and we are working very hard with the self-governing nations as well as the other nations,."
Ottawa is not only investing and trying to transform the child welfare system but is also taking steps to prevent children from ending up in crisis situations in the first place, the ministers said.
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal pointed to $250 million being spent to build four schools in Northern Manitoba to allow First Nations kids living in remote areas to attend school locally, rather than having to leave their communities — something that has been identified as a trigger that can lead to problems later on.
Criminal justice reforms proposed by the Liberals to repeal some mandatory minimum sentences — as a measure to stop the over-incarceration of Indigenous people across Canada — is also meant to keep families from being separated, said Justice Minister David Lametti.
Those reforms are contained in Bill C-22, which is getting a rough ride in the House of Commons and may not pass before MPs rise for the summer break later this month.
Qaqqaq said she is aware of all these measures but called on Ottawa to do more.
"I am here in an institution that has tried to eliminate my people for the last 70 years, standing up to say that the federal government is responsible for the ongoing colonization happening," she said during her speech.
"Acting is in the hands of this government. They can choose — they can choose — to support efforts toward real change or they can join governments of the past in perpetuating violence against Indigenous Peoples."
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering from trauma invoked by memories of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.