An investigation by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission says Inuit children in youth protection facilities in Montreal's West Island are being left behind — deprived of proper education, sometimes discouraged from speaking their own language and left feeling isolated and homesick.
"Many aspects of their culture are absent from their life, so there was a real sense of cultural alienation," Yolaine Williams, one of the commission's investigators, told CBC News. The commission released its report on Wednesday.
The investigation was prompted in part by a 2018 CBC investigation that found children in group homes run by Batshaw Youth and Family Services and the local health authority — the CIUSSS Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal — were sometimes being punished for speaking Inuktitut.
The commission launched its own investigation which quickly expanded its mandate after discovering many of the children weren't even going to school or getting a basic education.
"There was very limited advocacy done for these children over many years in terms of their access to formal schooling," Williams said.
Williams said the commission's investigation found no evidence of an explicit prohibition on children speaking Inuktitut but there were situations where it was discouraged.
"Sometimes educators need to understand what youth are saying among themselves, and they might ask you to either revert to English or to translate what they had just said," she said.
A source told CBC in 2018 that children were being told "constantly" not to speak Inuktitut among themselves. Williams said the commission found the prohibition was unusual.
Despite that, she said, it has an impact.
"It can create a feeling of insecurity in youth with the use of their language. They might feel compelled to speak English amongst themselves when educators are present," Williams said.
The commission made several recommendations, including more training for staff, hiring interpreters and clearly spelling out codes of conduct regarding language and ensuring those codes of conduct are translated into Inuktitut.
Commission investigators found that an even bigger problem was access to the most basic education.
Indigenous children in Quebec are exempt from laws requiring them to be educated in French. In Nunavik, children learn in Inuktitut from kindergarten to Grade 2. They then have a choice of studying in English or French. Most choose English.
The problem for children in youth protection comes when they're moved thousands of kilometres away from home, and suddenly face a wall of red tape if they want to be taught in English.
"As soon as they leave, they have to apply for English eligibility," Williams said.
"And historically there are a lot of administrative hurdles to obtaining the required documents."
She says many children are caught by surprise, and no one seems to be stepping up to help them fill out all those forms.
"There's kind of an inertia, I would say, of youth protection authorities and also of school boards and the minister of education," Williams said.
The result? Children don't get their English eligibility, must rely on tutors and simply don't get the education they're entitled to.
Williams says this also heightens their sense of isolation.
"The youth that I spoke to felt marginalized by the fact that they weren't going to school. They felt different and they felt that they were excluded from from a normal education," she said.
Government vows quick action
The CAQ government responded quickly to the report with a joint statement from the ministers of education, social services and Indigenous affairs, calling the situation "intolerable" and promising a quick fix.
"The situation presented in this report is unacceptable," Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said.
"We will make the necessary and permanent corrective measures to prevent this deplorable situation from repeating itself," he said.
The statement said some administrative changes had already been made to simplify the process and that an agreement for a permanent solution would be worked out between the Education and Social Services Ministries.
Big problem remains
Williams said moves like these, while welcome, only go so far.
"The fundamental problem, if you want, is the fact that there is this massive kind of migration of youth toward the south," she said.
"You're sent away from your community and placed in a completely different world," she said.
"Homesickness, I think, is a big big part of the problem," she added,
That migration happens because of a desperate lack of services of all kinds in the north — mental health, treatment for addictions and youth protection.
Williams said the main recommendation is that the Nunavik Regional Board of Health, with support from the province, create its own separate youth protection system based in the north.