Last week, a Federal Court hearing in Saskatoon resulted in one step being taken to respond to the Sixties Scoop — the system in which children were intentionally removed from Indigenous parents to be placed with white families.
But neither the hearing itself nor the approved class action settlement managed to avoid provoking some controversy. To the contrary, both served largely to signal how much more there is to be done to ensure that Indigenous families have the basic opportunities which most Canadians take for granted.
The hearing itself began with opening remarks which were seen as minimizing the harm done to survivors — including the jaw-dropping claim that non-Indigenous people were harmed more than Indigenous ones by the governmental practice of depriving the latter of their family and heritage. Meanwhile, the survivors who attended received only three minutes to tell their stories — and some understandably took away the sense that the hearing wasn’t intended to meaningfully include space for their experiences.
In turn, the settlement included a cap on damages for First Nations survivors of the Sixties Scoop, while failing to address Metis survivors at all.
To be sure, any negotiated settlement is likely to involve trade-offs from what any party would treat as an ideal outcome. And the existence of some compensation for the Sixties Scoop is surely better than its absence.
But unfortunately, there’s little indication that the larger issues underlying the Sixties Scoop will be resolved any time soon.
Even as we’ve once been again reminded of the consequences of historical discrimination against Indigenous people, our government’s choices today continue to exacerbate the longstanding gap in the treatment of families.
The federal government is still stalling in the face of calls (and Human Rights Tribunal orders) to ensure that Indigenous children have access to the funding and services expected by every other Canadian. And the ongoing funding and service gap, together with the lingering fallout from centuries of intentional discrimination, continues to result in a disproportionate number of Indigenous children being taken away from their families.
Based on the most recent available data, Indigenous children are five to 12 times more likely than their peers to be taken away from their families. In fact, by some estimates the raw number of Indigenous children removed from their families is higher now than ever.
The continued apprehension of Indigenous children is in turn traceable largely to the category of “neglect” — referring to present-day poverty and deprivation which arises in no small part due to our historical patterns of discrimination.
At best, we can say the purpose behind the apprehension of Indigenous children from their homes has changed. In the past, children were diverted to residential schools or white families for the explicit purpose of extinguishing any connection to their families and culture. Now, any removal is seen as an undesirable side effect of a decision aimed at the more justifiable purpose of ensuring children don’t suffer from material deprivation.
But that deprivation is something which can and should be tackled at the social level — particularly when the alternative is to perpetuate the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their families.
Sadly, our government’s actions continue to contribute to the same patterns of discrimination which have already left us with so much reason to apologize. And if we want to reach even the point of avoiding more harm (rather than setting ourselves up for another cycle of apologies and compensation in the future), one of the best places to start would be to ensure that our policy choices no longer have the effect of forcing Indigenous families apart.
Greg Fingas is a Regina lawyer, blogger and freelance political commentator who has written about provincial and national issues from a progressive NDP perspective since 2005.
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