Aboriginal Child Welfare in Canada
The history of Aboriginal people in Canada dates back to over 10,500 years. The Aboriginal children used to grow up and learn to assume adult roles in an atmosphere of love and affection. This practice continued until some time after their first contact with colonists in the 1490s. For the early missionaries, the Aboriginal ways were negligent and irresponsible towards the children. Their goading and coaxing continued until the 1800s when finally the government, aided by Christian churches, strengthened the system of residential schools for Indian children.
The main objective of these schools was to remove all traces of Aboriginality and instill the Euro-western culture, education and spirituality. The Indian Act was suitably modified to force the Indian parents to send their children from five years old to fifteen years old to residential schools. According to Milloy, “the conditions at the schools were abysmal as they were built of the cheapest possible materials, employed by untrained staff, and were often overcrowded due to government financial inducements to increase enrolment. Sexual and physical abuses were prevalent as were preventable deaths from disease” (Milloy, 1999).
Social workers of the 1960s practiced mass removals known as the 60’s scoop. The sixties scoop, coupled with a growing movement within First Nations and Aboriginal communities to stem the tide of children and youth being placed outside their communities, motivated the development of First Nations child and family service agencies. The number of First Nations child and family agencies expanded in the early 1990’s when the Federal government lifted a moratorium on the development of Aboriginal child agencies serving on reserve residents and implemented a national funding formula known as Directive 20-1 Chapter 5.
Aboriginal Peoples and the Child Welfare System in Manitoba
The history of Aboriginal child welfare in Manitoba closely parallels the situation across the country. During the late 1970s and 1980s, however, the Manitoba government made a number of changes to its child welfare system in order to provide Aboriginal communities with better and more humane services through greater local control. Like other provinces, Manitoba had passed various laws over the years, dealing with child welfare matters. In 1979-80, Manitoba created the first mandated First Nation’s child welfare agency in Canada.
The completion of tripartite negotiations on child welfare between Aboriginal leaders of the Four Nations Confederacy and the federal and provincial governments, and the signing of a master agreement in 1982, were giant steps towards establishing Aboriginal controlled child and family service agencies serving status Indians living on reserves throughout Manitoba. This agreement has been called “perhaps the most comprehensive and significant development affecting child welfare services to Indian people” in Canada.
The Master Agreement outlines the obligations and responsibilities of the various parties, establishes guiding principles for the operation of Aboriginal child welfare services and specifies the way in which these agencies would be funded. Each government is responsible for funding services on behalf of children who are that government’s responsibility. Agencies established through the tripartite agreement provide a full range of child welfare services to status Indians living on reserves.
The mandated reserve-based agencies are funded by the federal government, but operate under provincial child welfare legislation, while the non-mandated services of Ma Mawi Chi Itata in Winnipeg are funded largely by the Province, with smaller amounts of funding from the federal government and the private sector. Today there are five mandated Aboriginal agencies in Manitoba: the Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services, Southeast Child and Family Services, West Region Child and Family Services, Anishinaabe Child and Family Services, and Awasis Child and Family Services.
There are two main types of child welfare services which agencies provide: mandated and non-mandated. Mandated agencies have the legal authority to apprehend children, while non-mandated agencies do not. Both types of agencies can offer a wide range of child and family support services.
Aboriginal Child and Family Service Agencies: An Evaluation
Prior to 1980, Aboriginal communities frequently were denied services and the few services they did receive were provided by non-Aboriginal agencies. Tremendous advances have been made in Manitoba’s approach to the delivery of Aboriginal child and family services, especially when compared to those of many other jurisdictions. Some salient aspects are:-
· Aboriginal child and family service agencies have become remarkably effective in dealing with even the most difficult child welfare cases in a very short period of time.
· Services required by Aboriginal children and families that were being denied previously are now being provided.
· Attention has been drawn to the needs of Aboriginal children and families in a way that did not happen in the previous service system.
·A network of Aboriginal child and family services covering the province of Manitoba has been established.
·Aboriginal people living on reserves now receive services that are comparable to the services received by non-Aboriginal people.
·These agencies have been able to generate a level of community involvement and support that is far beyond what existed for non-Aboriginal agencies trying to do the same job in the same Aboriginal communities.
· Aboriginal agencies have been able to create culturally appropriate solutions to child welfare problems. This has resulted in better services being provided to children, families and Aboriginal communities. In particular, by relying extensively on extended families for providing substitute care, Aboriginal agencies have been able to drastically reduce the number of Aboriginal children who are removed from their community for placements.
·Aboriginal agencies have had to operate with inadequate financial resources even when compared to non-Aboriginal agencies. This means agencies are trying to provide appropriate services to urban Aboriginal people with inadequate resources.
· he funding of Aboriginal child and family service agencies has tended to provide few financial incentives for preventive and educational services. Instead, the funding agreements have focused on paying back the Aboriginal agencies after they have already dealt with family problems. Manitoba’s Child and Family Services Act
In 1987, Manitoba passed a new Child and Family Services Act. This Act incorporates many of the improvements that have been achieved in the delivery of Aboriginal child and family services in Manitoba.
· Communities and families have a right to be involved in child welfare issues affecting them.
·Indian bands are entitled to the provision of child and family services in a manner that respects their unique status as Aboriginal peoples.
·The Act provides the legislative framework for the tripartite agreements and for the creation of Aboriginal child and family services agencies.
· Cultural and linguistic heritage is included within the concept of the “best interests” of the child, and agencies are compelled to respect the cultural and linguistic heritage of the families and children they serve
The existing child and family service system is not perfect. In particular, the improvement of the Aboriginal child and family service system in Manitoba requires the provincial government’s attention on a number of issues.
·Issues relating to the organizational structure of child and family services.
·Services to the Metis people.
·Services to off-reserve Indians.
· Services to Aboriginal people living in Winnipeg.
There are a number of financial and other resource issues facing the child and family service system. Financial support for non-Aboriginal child and family service agencies is far from adequate. Among those most in need of child and family services in Winnipeg are Aboriginal residents. Each agency negotiates its funding separately with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Inadequate funding has created deficits and prevented some families and children from receiving the services they require. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal child and family service agencies need to be provided with sufficient resources to enable them to provide the communities they serve with the full range of direct service and preventive programs mandated by the Child and Family Services Act.
Aboriginal child and family service agencies need more than increased funding. Agencies should provide better working conditions, better advancement opportunities and improved benefits to attract and retain Aboriginal professionals in the field of child welfare. In short, human resources training and development are needed for the Aboriginal child welfare system.
Distance education programs may be included in any long-term training and development plan for Aboriginal people in northern or remote communities. ACCESS programs have successfully demonstrated that Aboriginal people can complete higher education and training programs in a variety of professions.
Aboriginal child and family service agencies have not been receiving enough organizational support. In particular, these agencies need assistance to develop policies, standards, protocols and procedures in a wide array of areas. All child and family service agencies need modern information systems to enable them to communicate with other agencies, to track cases and to share information through some network. These are fundamental needs for any effective organization, and no less so for an Aboriginal child welfare agency. However, these needs of all agencies, including Aboriginal agencies, have largely been ignored.
Aboriginal communities in Manitoba have worked very hard to obtain a greater degree of control over the future of their children and communities. This becomes critical when one recognizes the continuing high levels of contact between Aboriginal families and the non-Aboriginal child welfare system in Manitoba. While many of the legal issues and practical problems have been addressed, to some extent, through the establishment of Indian child welfare agencies functioning on Indian reserves, many serious problems continue to exist in urban and non-Aboriginal communities.
Aboriginal child care agencies have been an outstanding success and they warrant further support and encouragement. They are dealing with Aboriginal families with sensitivity, commitment and ability. The need for ongoing support and a commitment to Aboriginal child welfare agencies must be recognized and reaffirmed. The reform of the child welfare system is an example of that.
Positive steps have been taken, but not all Aboriginal people have benefited. Existing agencies must be strengthened and those Aboriginal people not served by Aboriginal agencies must now be afforded this opportunity. Aboriginal peoples must continue to gain more responsibility for the child and family programs and services that affect them. By expanding the range and number of mandated Aboriginal agencies as we have recommended, all Aboriginal Manitobans will have the opportunity to receive culturally appropriate child and family services.