Premier’s apology for sixties scoop would ring hollow, says FSIN vice chief

Fourth Vice Chief Heather Bear. Michelle Berg/Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Just when the worst of the residential schools era was drawing to a close, the sixties scoop began.

Those years are still a raw wound for Indigenous people across the country, who remember social workers descending upon their reserves, castigating their parenting skills, and snatching away thousands of children for placement in foster care.

Saskatchewan’s Adopt Indian Métis program ran from 1967 to 1974, with more than 1,000 children placed outside of their homes. Forty-three years later, the province could soon become the second in Canada to apologize for its part in the sixties scoop. Premier Brad Wall has hinted as much, and the Ministry of Government Relations confirms that the government is in contact with the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) to discuss timing.

But some in the FSIN think the apology, whenever it comes, will ring hollow. With at least 3,700 Indigenous children still in care across Saskatchewan, Vice Chief Heather Bear feels like the sixties scoop never really ended.

“I don’t believe that it’s going to mean anything,” said Bear. “There’s no change. They’re still doing it.”

Statistics seem to back up her concerns. First Nations children are still far more likely to end up in care than their peers. According to June 2017 data provided by the Ministry of Social Services, 72.7 per cent of the 5,131 Saskatchewan children placed in out-of-home care – either by child welfare agencies or through the courts – are Indigenous. That proportion is actually about 10 per cent higher than what it was in the 1970’s.

For Bear, the problem stems from a lack of autonomy for First Nations to design and run their own child welfare systems. She wants more flexibility for band-run initiatives that make use of Indigenous traditions, rather than policy set in Regina.

“First and foremost the legal framework needs to be changed,” she said. “It has to be community-based.”

The province already contracts with 17 First Nations child welfare agencies that work on reserve, and in some largely Indigenous communities like La Ronge. But they aren’t responsible for First Nations children living off-reserve in larger centres. They’re still subject to the same legislation and standards that apply to all other child welfare groups, with only a few exceptions worked out through special agreements.

Bear wants First Nations to take “full control” over child welfare policy.

“We need more freedom to execute what works,” she said. “Full control of our children, jurisdiction over our children, on and off reserve. We want to put an end to provincial control, because it’s not working for our people.”

“We always look to families first”

The Ministry of Social Services is mandated to protect children facing abuse and neglect. For Tobie Eberhardt, the ministry’s executive director of child and family programs, that mission is non-negotiable.

“If we receive a report that a child is being abused or neglected, we are required to investigate,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean child welfare workers still use the methods of the 1960’s. During the sixties scoop, few workers had much knowledge of Indigenous culture. Too often, they fell back on European prejudices about the proper way to parent. Today, Eberhardt said, all of her staff get cultural sensitivity training.

“We certainly recognize the need for our staff to have an understanding of the various cultures we work with,” she said. “There’s an expectation that this is built into each child’s case plan.”

That’s part of a wider evolution in the way the ministry deals with Indigenous children at risk, Eberhardt explained. She said her staff and partner agencies make every effort to work with families, rather than taking children away at the first sign of trouble.

“Our practice has shifted over the years,” she said. “Our focus is on how can we support families on how to safely care for children in the home.”

That might mean providing parenting classes, “intensive home-support services” or addictions and mental health services to address the root causes of neglect.

Sometimes, that isn’t enough. If a child is still at risk, social workers have to take action. But Eberhardt said the goal is to find a responsible adult in the extended family – an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent – to step in and care for a neglected child.

“Unfortunately, at times, due to safety issues, children do have to come into care,” she said. “When children do have to come into care, we always look to families first.”

Across the province, she said, more than half of children taken into care are placed with family. When that isn’t possible, workers try to “keep them connected with their culture.” That might mean finding an Indigenous family willing to provide foster care.

“We are always looking for more foster families that are First Nations or Métis,” she said. “We would be happy to have more; there’s always room for improvement.”

She said it’s important that non-Indigenous families are aware of the importance of First Nations identity. The ministry tries to provide them the tools they need. “They are required to attend a cultural training component,” Eberhardt explained.

Despite the progress, Eberhardt admits there’s still plenty of work to be done.

“We certainly recognize the importance of ensuring that First Nations communities have responsibility for providing protection to First Nations children, and I think there’s a lot we can do to continue to improve.”

Getting proactive

Eberhardt wouldn’t broach the fraught subject of why, 43 years after the sixties scoop, First Nations children are still so much more likely to end up in care than their peers. She said the same trend exists in other provinces, and stressed that families who come to the attention of social services are often “vulnerable” and have “complex issues.”

The University of Regina’s Monty Montgomery is a bit more willing to wade into the issues behind those statistics. An associate professor in the university’s social work department, he studies First Nations child welfare practice.

Montgomery admits that the Ministry has made progress on respecting cultural rights and identity. From his conversations with people in government, he’s convinced they’re committed to “equitable, fair and culturally sensitive services.” But he said the system is still “reactive.” The real enemies of child welfare, he argues, are poverty, poor housing and inadequate services on reserve.

“The existing models don’t work so well around preventing or ameliorating the conditions that lead to abuse and neglect,” he said. “It’s a reactive system that relies on reports and public health surveillance type activities.”

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 69 per cent of Saskatchewan’s First Nations children on reserve live in poverty. Many live in overcrowded, dilapidated housing. Montgomery thinks improving housing on reserve would “make a huge difference” in lowering the risks that First Nations children face, risks that make them more likely to end up trapped in the system.

Montgomery said that finances are the real barrier to going after those risk factors. While mentalities have evolved, he said the funding model hasn’t changed much from what it was back in the 1960’s.

There have been some positive steps. In 2007, the federal government negotiated a prevention services model worth about $105 million over five years. But Montgomery wants to see a whole of government effort. In his view, both Ottawa and Regina should be working together to bring living conditions up to the level other Saskatchewan people enjoy.

“The funding models haven’t been established to support those kinds of ancillary services that would prevent children from coming into care,” he said. “The Crown, which is indivisible between the federal government and the provinces, has a responsibility for providing services to all citizens … regardless of whether they live on reserve or off reserve.”

Bear agrees that inadequate funding is a major issue holding First Nations children back. Prevention services, she said, are “ill funded.” She wants that money to come straight to First Nations communities. “Cut out the middleman,” as she puts it.

She accepts that children will always need protection, but thinks that First Nations have the knowledge and commitment to manage the task on their own.

“Yes, there are children who need care, but in our communities we have the culture, the language, the customs and the traditions of our people,” she said. “We are all there watching – we all love our children.”