ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The history of care for First Nations children in Canada is tragic. From residential schools and child welfare malpractices, policies involving the removal of thousands of indigenous children from their homes have resulted in decades of generational trauma for indigenous families throughout Canada.
The lack of health care and social benefits available to children living on-reserve has come to the forefront of policy in recent years, as awareness increases regarding the deaths of former residential school children. At the center of reform are Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Services and Jordan’s Principle. The programs and policies have made significant changes through legislative progress and have resulted in landmark compensation packages for indigenous families who experienced harm from previous failures.
Jordan’s Principle is one of the earliest acts that passed to address the lack of First Nations children’s access to health care benefits. Inspired by Jordan River Anderson, a Norway House Cree Nation child born in Manitoba in 1999 with severe disabilities, doctors determined on-reserve home care would be best for his health at the age of 2. However, a consensus from doctors and provincial and federal leaders on continuing essential medical care from home never occurred. As a result, Jordan could not access in-home medical care and died in hospital, at age 5, in 2004.
Canada’s House of Commons unanimously passed the Jordan Principle in 2007 with the intention to provide equal and full access to all social and welfare benefits to First Nations children and correct the previous discrepancies in the social and medical care that indigenous children receive.
In 2017, amendments from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to Jordan’s Principle sought to correct further shortcomings in its practice and policy. An allocated $2.86 billion went toward addressing the needs of First Nations children through Jordan’s Principle.
As a result, the federal government reported that from July 2016 to March 2020, “more than 572,000 products, services and supports were approved for First Nations children under Jordan’s Principle.”
Confronting the Damage of Foster Care and Residential Schools
In the late 19th century, various religious and governmental organizations began the removal of indigenous children from their homes through ongoing amendments to the Indian Act. Estimates have stated that authorities took 150,000 children from both off-reserve and on-reserve homes and placed them in one of 139 residential boarding schools. By 1920, mandatory rulings forced all indigenous children, ages 4 to 16 to be in annual attendance.
While the last residential school in Canada closed its doors in Saskatchewan in 1996, in years prior and that followed, First Nations and other indigenous children were removed from their homes systemically through Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Services, leading to a striking overrepresentation of First Nations children in foster care. According to 2016 census data, while indigenous children make up only 7.7% of the population of Canada, more than 52% of the children in foster care are indigenous.
Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Services has experienced a reckoning in recent years after experiencing sharp criticism and comparisons to former residential schools’ practices. With alarmingly high abuse and mortality rates reported throughout the system, calls for change by indigenous families have been many.
In 2015, official calls by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began for the reformation of the Indigenous child welfare program. By 2019, The First Nations, Inuit and Métis partners and provinces and territories joined to pass the “Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families” which became law the same year.
The law puts forward the principle of “best interests of the indigenous child,” protecting parental relationships, encouraging the development and preservation of language, culture and tradition as well as encouraging preventative support to indigenous families.
Financial Compensation for Families Torn Apart
Inspired by Jordan’s Principle and the “Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families,” Agreements-in-Principle came to fruition in January 2022, awarding $31.5 billion in compensation to families who experienced the impact of the broken welfare system and lack of Jordan’s Principle in practice.
Half of the compensation package, which was to go to qualifying families in late 2022, went to indigenous children and caregivers who experienced the discriminatory practices of the child welfare system and the removal of on-reserve and Yukon-based children between April 1, 1991, and March 31, 2022. Additionally, those previously denied social services outlined in Jordan’s Principle will receive compensation. The remaining amount should undergo distribution over the next five years, to the reform of the on-reserve child welfare system.
As these changes and compensations end up in place, First Nations children and families look to rebuild communities through culture and traditions once threatened and nearly erased. Advocacy groups and support networks throughout on-reserve communities look to prevent family separation and are on hand to help families navigate the welfare system.
– Michelle Collingridge