I just read an opinion piece published on the CBC News Indigenous site penned by Pamela Palmater, called “Foster care system one of the paths to murdered and missing Indigenous women.”
I consider the piece important for a number of reasons;
- The author is an intelligent, educated Indigenous women, an activist and lawyer
- She has a loud voice and is not afraid to use it
- She has over 32,000 followers on Twitter
- She has the ability to influence Indigenous and non-Indigenous opinion
The primary thrust of the article is captured in the opinion expressed in the very last paragraph;
“Foster care is literally killing our children. It is time for it to stop.”
That is a bold statement that merits a degree of scrutiny.
I think it’s time to dig a bit deeper.
Let’s go back to the start…
Palmater begins the article by citing three (3) highly publicized cases involving the killing of Indigenous children, all of whom had involvement in the child welfare system;
- Tina Fontaine (15)
- Phoenix Sinclair (5)
- Cameron Ouskan (1)
You can form your own opinion regarding the relevance of these cases.
The Back Stories;
Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from the Red River on August 17, 2014. She had been killed, her body wrapped in a blanket and rocks were used to weigh her down. Raymond Cormier (53) was charged with 2nd degree murder but was subsequently found not guilty by the jury.
Fontaine was under the “protection” of CFS at the time of her death.
Phoenix Sinclair was killed by her mother and stepfather in June of 2011. She was the victim of horrific child abuse that included beatings, choking and starvation. She was made to sleep in a cold basement forced to eat her own vomit and was shot with a pellet gun.
Her mother and stepfather were convicted of 1st degree murder in the horrific case.
CFS had extensive involvement in the case.
Cameron Ouskan was a thirteen (13) month old little boy who was killed in November of 2008 after suffering extensive trauma while in foster care. His foster-father, Roderick Blacksmith (29), was charged with 2nd degree murder but was acquitted by a judge who ruled there was not enough evidence implicating the man in the child’s death.
Ouskan was in an Indigenous run social services agency for the 10 months before he died.
Palmater indicates the commonalities in these cases were the victims were all Indigenous and were all in foster care in the Province of Manitoba.
“Foster care has become the new residential school with all its attending abuses.”
She goes on to share facts & figures regarding Indigenous over-representation in the child welfare system;
- In 2011, Indigenous children represented more than 48% of children in care in Canada while only representing 7% of the population.
- In Manitoba, that number is approximately 85% – reports suggest over 10,000 Indigenous children are in care in our province.
- A 2001 study found that two-thirds of all Indigenous people in prison had been involved in the child welfare system
- Half the victims of sex trafficking in Canada are Indigenous
- Doctors, lawyers, police officers, judges and some foster parents see Indigenous children in foster care as vulnerable targets for sexualized violence
Palmater states, “Foster care has become the new residential school with all its attending abuses.”
She goes as far to suggest Indigenous children have become a buy-sell-trade “industry” for sex traffickers, hotels, prisons, police and foster parents.
She tells us there are more than 4,000 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Numbers at Odds
In 2014, the RCMP released a report suggesting the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women was 1,181. (1,017 homicide victims & 164 missing.)
The total number of unsolved Indigenous Female occurrences were reported as follows;
- 120 unsolved homicide cases
- 105 unsolved missing cases
(Time-frame cited was between 1980 & 2012.)
In 2015, the RCMP released a revised report that offered clarifications to the evolving data;
- 106 unsolved homicide cases
- 98 unsolved missing cases (unknown circumstances or foul play suspected)
The data evolved for various reasons which were specified in the report.
Indigenous groups suggest the discrepancies in statistics is due to under-reporting of violence against Indigenous women and girls, the lack of an effective database and a failure to identify cases by ethnicity.
Regardless, despite significant disagreement regarding statistics, most people agree violence against Indigenous women is a serious problem and things have to dramatically change.
What I can’t agree with is the unfair characterization of Child & Family Services as an evil Government entity determined to kidnap Indigenous children from functioning Indigenous families.
That, in my experience, is not the case.
(If there are such cases, they should be vigorously investigated and consequences should befall upon the offending agency.)
The parallels drawn between modern-day CFS, Residential Schools and the 60’s scoop are erroneous at best and intentionally divisive at worst.
The fact is, front line emergency service workers like police, paramedics, fire and child protection specialists often see tremendous child abuse in our beleaguered city and province.
The fact is child apprehensions happen.
These apprehensions are not made by social workers unfamiliar with Indigenous culture or communities and they’re not made based on white middle class Euro-Canadian standards or values like they were in the past.
The apprehensions are made to save children from serious neglect, sexual abuse, physical harm, injury or death.
Children like Phoenix Sinclair, a child who was apprehended by CFS and returned to an Indigenous mother who participated in the horrific cruelty that ultimately caused her death.
(I found the inclusion of the Sinclair case in Palmater’s article to be somewhat counterintuitive.)
I’ve covered some of the disturbing cases I experienced as a front-line police officer in past Police Insider articles.
The things I saw are only a micro-percentage of the things my brothers and sisters in law enforcement and EMS have witnessed.
The stories are horrific, heart-breaking and tragic.
The Blaming Industry
I find it interesting that nowhere in Palmater’s article will you find any suggestion or acknowledgement that Indigenous children are apprehended by CFS with cause.
“That doesn’t seem to dissuade those who participate in the blaming industry from continuing their efforts to try to divide us.”
As a lawyer, Palmater knows the Child & Family Services Act of Manitoba has very clear guidelines regarding child protection and duties of agencies.
The act provides specific guidelines regarding child safety, abuse, neglect, care, duty to report and apprehend.
The intent of the act is clear – to protect children.
The Act is law.
If someone witnesses child abuse they have a moral and legal obligation to report it.
Those tasked to investigate have a moral and legal obligation to make sure children are safe.
Social agencies have a moral and legal obligation to act.
That doesn’t seem to dissuade those who participate in the blaming industry from continuing their efforts to try to divide us.
We saw it recently in the Colten Boushie & Tina Fontaine cases.
In the Boushie case, Indigenous leaders blamed the all white jury, the racially biased justice system and the racist farmer.
In the Fontaine case, Indigenous leaders blamed the child welfare system, the police and the courts.
It seems the blame list was remarkably short in both cases.
Not every Indigenous leader played the game.
Robert Falcon Ouellette, MP for Winnipeg Center, came out with a strong inclusive message demonstrating compassion for both the Boushie and Stanley families.
When asked if he was concerned his comments might anger people in the Indigenous community Ouellette said;
“Probably, but the role of a leader is also to look at things with a cool head and try and take a perspective from different vantage points.”
Ouellette was strongly rebuked by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs for taking a neutral position on the case.
A position many people supported and respected.
After hearing the not-guilty verdict in the Fontaine case, MKO Grand Chief Shiela North departed from the usual finger-pointing with an inclusive message of her own;
“This is a very difficult and tremendously sad day for our people. This is not the outcome anybody wanted. The systems, everything that was involved in Tina’s life failed her. We’ve all failed her. We as a nation need to do better, all of us.”
The message was one of joint responsibility.
A message most people can accept.
The Path to Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women
“While the struggling national inquiry hasn’t even begun to look at the systemic issues yet, we can predict based on testimonies from families and reports from those agencies who work with victims, that close to half of the murdered and missing were connected with the foster care system.”
So is the foster care system really to blame for close to half of the murdered and missing?
The suggestion is entirely misleading and completely ignores the primary cause of death for murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The RCMP National Operational Review Report provided hard data that told us upwards of 90% of Indigenous women were killed by someone known to them, ie: spouse, family, other intimate person or acquaintance.
(Police Insider analysis and findings conducted on Winnipeg Homicide cases were consistent with the RCMP findings.)
So why the need to deflect, divert or mislead?
Why blame the foster care system when domestic or family violence is the number one cause of Indigenous female homicide?
The connection between the foster care system and the murder of Indigenous women is abstract and irresponsible.
Irresponsible because it discounts the need for immediate domestic violence education, training and intervention.
(Alcohol and drug addiction treatment & intervention would be essential components to any domestic violence intervention strategy.)
In the executive summary in the 2015 version of the National Operational Review Report, the RCMP indicated;
“Violence in family relationships is a key factor in homicides of women, (Indigenous & non-Indigenous) and has prompted the RCMP to focus intervention and prevention efforts on familial and spousal violence.”
Indigenous leaders and activists need to recognize the inconvenient truth and partner with the RCMP in their efforts to prevent domestic and family violence in the Indigenous communities.
The same efforts must be made in our urban centres.
That’s the path forward.
That’s how we reduce victimization.
That’s how we change those ugly numbers.
The child welfare system in the Province of Manitoba has been the subject of great criticism.
The policy of housing youth in need of protection in non-secure hotel rooms was exposed as a significantly flawed and ineffective strategy.
The Tina Fontaine case exposed many of the organizations failings.
The Pallister Government recently made undertakings to address the child welfare crisis in Manitoba with funding and changes to existing laws.
The Government acknowledged too much money has been spent on apprehension and more money needs to be spent on intervention and prevention.
The 2018 Federal Budget released yesterday proposed more than 1.4 billion dollars over six years for First Nations child and family services.
The money is intended to reduce pressure on child and family services agencies and increase prevention resources in First Nations communities so families can stay together.