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First Nations Children "Had Never Seen a Shower Before"

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The two girls were just standing there staring at the shower room wall, confused and afraid.

It was 1982, and Cindy Blackstock was a university student working at a group home in Prince George, B.C. when the aboriginal girls were brought in. They were sisters: 10 and 12 years old. Social workers had taken them from their home on a reservation because of parental neglect.

The girls were sent for a shower. When they didn't return, Blackstock went in to check on them. "I'll never forget the look in their eyes. It was as if they had been shoved into a different world."

They had never seen a shower before.

In the months to come, Blackstock watched the sisters struggle to adapt to their strange new world. She started questioning whether being thrown into foster care was harming First Nations children as much as the environments they were being removed from.

Three times more First Nations children are being removed from their families today than at the peak of the residential school system in 1949. Then, approximately 8,900 aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in residential schools. Now, more than 27,500 First Nations children are in foster care.

According to former Auditor General Sheila Fraser, First Nations children are being placed in care at six to eight times the rate of other Canadian children.

Most of us are probably familiar with that uncomfortable feeling of staying in a stranger's home, perhaps being billeted for a sports event or while on vacation. We don't know the rules, the expectations, or the way things work there.

Now imagine how that feeling must be magnified for children who have just been ripped away from their family. Worse still for First Nations children placed in non-aboriginal homes, adding culture shock to the mix.

"We know that children in care are more likely [than those who stay with their families] to have substance misuse issues, more likely to have involvement with the criminal justice system, more likely to have mental and physical health concerns and are less likley to succeed at school," says Blackstock, who worked for 13 years on the front lines of child welfare and is now Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

There are situations where removing a child from their home is absolutely necessary, such as cases of sexual abuse where the child cannot be protected by a non-offending adult. Blackstock argues in many more cases, however, children are taken because of neglect resulting from poor housing and nutrition, substance abuse, or the inability of impoverished families to meet the needs of a child with special needs.

Many of these problems could be solved in the home, allowing children to stay with their families if the resources were there. But for First Nations families on reserves, the resources aren't.

According to a study cited by First Nations groups, children on reserves receive 22 per cent less funding per child for child welfare than other Canadian children, particularly for services that would help them stay with their families.

Blackstock says that social workers dealing with First Nations children are under-trained on the factors driving First Nations children into foster care, under-resourced, over-worked, and overwhelmed: "It's like giving Canadian soldiers nothing more than shovels and telling them to go fight the U.S. Army."

Children on reservations are caught in a no-man's land between governments. Provinces manage child welfare, but Ottawa is responsible for First Nations.

Jeremy Beadle is a 15-year-old First Nations boy in Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia. He has autism, cerebral palsy, and other health challenges. His mother, Maurina, was able to care for him until 2010 when she suffered a stroke that put her in a wheelchair.

With additional support Jeremy could stay at home, but the federal government won't provide it. If Jeremy and Maurina were not First Nations, and lived just an few 100 metres away off the reserve, the province would provide support.

Ironically, the federal government will pay to put Jeremy into an institution even though it would cost thousands more than simply providing the services at home.

Jeremy is at home now and his First Nations group is paying for the additional costs of his care, but the money is running out. The Nation is taking the government to court with a discrimination claim to get the support Jeremy deserves.

It feels like we've learned nothing from the suffering of the residential schools. Although these children are not being subjected to the same systemic abuse, the effect of thousands more First Nations children plucked from their families and culture and placed into care is, in its own way, every bit as traumatic.

Child welfare for Canada's First Nations is a vastly complex issue, and there are no easy answers or quick fixes. However, simply giving these children as much support as all other Canadian children would allow many more of them to live in a healthier home environment.

Thirty years later, Cindy Blackstock still thinks about those sisters. "I wonder, if they could, would they say to the social worker who took them from their family, 'You promised us a better life.' I don't think they got one."

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