Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River and author of “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.”
Canada does not care for indigenous children.
Or at least that’s the impression given by two of the leading candidates in the country’s federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer. Both have recently announced that they intend to fight a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that indigenous children should be compensated for the harm created by Canada’s unequal funding of essential services and the on-reserve child welfare system.
While Scheer’s intentions are purely hypothetical at this point, Trudeau is currently in a position to turn his inhumane stance into a continuing lived reality for indigenous kids. In a federal court filing made last week, the Liberal government argued for an order “setting aside the Tribunal’s decision and dismissing the claim for monetary compensation.” In the English-language leaders debate that followed Monday night, neither Trudeau nor Scheer explained what would happen to these children while they wait for a judicial review, or expressed any empathy whatsoever.
Considering Scheer is one of the only federal candidates who has publicly denied that indigenous people have suffered genocide at the hands of the Canadian nation-state, countering the findings of the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, his stance isn’t particularly surprising.
Trudeau, on the other hand, campaigned on the promise of reconciliation, saying that he would ensure that indigenous peoples would have the right to veto natural resource development in their communities and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He actively courted indigenous voters — and it worked. A recent poll commissioned by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network found that 40 percent of indigenous voters polled voted Liberal in 2015. The Liberals’ next closest competitors were the New Democratic Party at 16 percent and the Conservatives at 15 percent.
So why do Trudeau and Scheer believe that challenging the Tribunal decision will leave their public support unaffected — and perhaps even garner them more support? What does this say about Canadians and the impression they’re giving political leaders about their level of care and concern for indigenous children?
It has only been 11 years since Canada officially apologized for residential schools, which ripped generations of indigenous children away from our families and put us in the care of people who didn’t care whether we lived or died, so long as we were “civilized.” A 2018 poll found that a staggering 53 percent of Canadians think that Canada has spent too much time apologizing for residential schools. Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak has even gone on record defending the schools, saying that she spoke “in memory of the kindly and well-intentioned men and women … whose remarkable works, good deeds and historical tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged.”
The indifference, even outright disdain, that these Canadians appear to have for indigenous peoples seems to be based less on facts and more on the desire to move through their lives unencumbered by pesky colonial guilt. But indigenous people are still dealing with the attitudes and policies we’re supposed to be “moving on from.” In northern Ontario, three indigenous agencies covering social services were underfunded $400 million over a five-year period. That chronic underfunding has had a body count: 102 indigenous children have died between 2013 and 2017 in Ontario alone, 48 of whom died in the two years since the Tribunal first ordered the government to immediately stop discriminating against indigenous kids and fund them at the same rate as non-indigenous kids.
These circumstances make it so that many indigenous parents must choose between caring for their own kids despite the lack of services available to them, and giving them to social services, where they’ll theoretically receive the same amount of funding as non-indigenous children but be needlessly separated from their families and enter a dangerous, ineffective foster care system. Sixty percent of homeless youths and one-third of homeless adults have been involved with Canada’s child welfare system.
While the Liberal government can claim it hasn’t had enough time to figure out how to treat indigenous children fairly, its own documents say otherwise. In 2004, an internal document from what was then the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada admitted that “lack of in-home family support for children at risk and inequitable access to services” were important contributing factors to the over-representation of indigenous children in the child welfare system. The proposed solution? To “signal to First Nations that [the government of Canada] is serious about responding to … a funding crisis in First Nations Child and Family Services.”
Canada has had 15 years to remedy this. They have had 12 years to deal with the Tribunal complaint, which was originally filed in 2007. Trudeau’s Liberal government in particular has had four years to stop fighting the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and indigenous children, and work toward a solution. How many more of our children have to die, how many decades have to pass, before Canada apologizes for and rectifies the atrocities it is committing now?
I’m not sure what more indigenous children can do to prove that they deserve to live safely and with equal rights. But I am sure what the candidates for the highest political office in Canada can do to prove that they have hearts. Let’s hope that they find their humanity and become the leaders that they claim to be.