The History of the First Nations Child Welfare System in Ontario
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) maintains that the overrepresentation of First Nations children within the child welfare systems is an extension of the government’s policy of assimilation enacted through the residential school system in which Indigenous children were systematically removed from their homes, families, traditions and cultures (AFN, 2014; Kozlowski, Sinha, & Richard, 2012). The Canadian government’s policy of assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Canadian society was enacted by the separation of children from their families. Residential schools were the primary mechanism to do this (Milloy, 1999). Amendments to the Indian Act in 1920 made attendance at school (day, residential and institutional) mandatory for all children between the ages of seven and fifteen. To enforce this, truant officers were given the right to enter homes, arrest children and take them to school (Assembly of First Nations, 2014). In cases of abuse or neglect, the Indian agent had the authority to apprehend children and take them to the residential schools.
The addition of Section 88 to the Indian Act in 1951 made “all laws of general application from time to time in force in any province applicable to and in respect of Indians in the province” (Indian Act, s. 88, c. 9, s. 151, 1985). This meant that provincial child welfare legislation could be enforced on-reserve. Child welfare workers now had the authority to begin apprehending on-reserve, sharply increasing the number of Indigenous children in care (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996).
The 1965 Welfare Agreement, a Memorandum of Agreement between the federal and provincial governments, is an arrangement whereby the federal government reimburses the province of Ontario for the cost of delivering child and family services to First Nation children and families on-reserve. According to this agreement, the federal government pays 93% of the costs of child welfare services delivered on-reserve and the provincial government pays the remaining 7% (Government of Canada, 2018). Interestingly, the First Nations communities were not signatories to this agreement (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, 2016). The 1965 agreement is responsible for the removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities by non-Indigenous child welfare workers, contributing to the deterioration of Anishinaabe family systems (Weechi-it-te-win Family Services, 2018a).
By the 1970s, First Nations groups, dissatisfied with provincial child welfare programs, publicly demanded greater control of child welfare services and began to develop their own child welfare agencies within their communities (Auditor General of Canada, 2008). In addition, Indigenous communities were concerned about the high number of First Nations children in the care of Children’s Aid Societies in their respective areas. By 1981, the Chiefs of Ontario demanded that all First Nations children in care be returned to their communities and that further removal of First Nations children be stopped (Mandell, Blackstock, Clouston Carlson, & Fine, 2006). By 1984, the Child and Family Services Act that governed child welfare in Ontario formally recognized the rights of First Nations children and included statements that allowed for the development of First Nations child welfare agencies (Mandell et al., 2006).
Indigenous child welfare advocates have been wrestling with the government to create responsive equitable services for Indigenous children, families and communities. On February 23, 2007, Cindy Blackstock, on behalf of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS), filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) against the government of Canada on the basis that the Government was not providing First Nations children and their families the same level of services that other families in Canada were receiving. One of the complaints was that the services that other families were receiving kept families safely together during hard times, an example of the level of care that was not afforded to First Nations children and families. The year 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of the filing of this complaint (FNCFCS, 2018a).
In January 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Government was discriminating against First Nations children by not providing them equal child welfare services and ordered the discrimination to stop immediately. Small changes were made by the government but this did not result in giving First Nations children and families the services they deserved. The tribunal made three more orders in an effort to get the government to take more action on this. Finally, in February 2018, the tribunal issued another decision, this time listing specific actions and timelines that the government must complete along with a requirement to report back to the tribunal on progress made. In the event of lack of progress, the tribunal can order Canada to do more (FNCFCS, 2018a).
The FNCFCS, the only national non-profit organization serving Aboriginal children and families, was created in 1998 at a national meeting of First Nations Child and Family Service Agencies (FNCFSA) at the Squamish First Nation in British Columbia. The FNCFSA identified a need for an organization that would support them in caring for First Nations children, youth and families by providing research, policy, professional development and networking support. The FNCFCS has brought to the forefront two major issues affecting children and youth – Jordan’s Principle and Shannen’s Dream.
Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle that ensures that all First Nations children receive access to needed culturally relevant services and that the government of first contact pay for the services and work out reimbursements later so that the child does not get caught up in government red tape. Jordan’s Principle is named in memory of Jordan River Anderson from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, born with complex medical needs and who remained hospitalized for over two years while the provincial and federal governments argued over who was responsible for paying for at home care. He eventually died in hospital, never spending a day in his home.
Shannen’s Dream, a campaign to ensure all First Nations children have “safe and comfy schools” and receive a good quality education, was named in memory of Shannen Koostachin from Attawapiskat First Nation. Shannen was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, given out by the Nobel Laureates for her leadership in advocating for the new school.
In 2000, the Attawapiskat First Nation Education Authority closed the elementary school due to health and safety concerns after thousands of gallons of diesel fuel contaminated the ground under the school. The federal government’s temporary solution was to put portable trailers on the playground of the contaminated school with a promise to build a new school. In response to the closure of the school, the children of Attawapiskat organized the Attawapiskat School Campaign to force the federal government to build a new school in their community. In 2009, nine years later, the new school had not yet been built.
The children in Attawapiskat were able to mobilize children from across Canada to petition the federal government for a new school for Attawapiskat. In 2008, despite the thousands of letters of support from children across Canada, the Minister of Indian Affairs, Chuck Strahl, stated that the federal government could not afford to fund a new school. The Grade 8 students in Attawapiskat selected Shannen and two other students to meet with Minister Strahl to demand a new school. Shannen continued to advocate for a new school even after being told by Minister Strahl that the government could not afford it. In 2009, Minister Strahl promised to build a new school. Finally in 2012, Attawapiskat and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs announced that a new 5,808-square-metre school would be built at a cost of about $31 million.The School opened in August 2014, 14 years after the children of Attiwapiskat started the Shannen’s Dream campaign.
In the Greater Sudbury/Manitoulin area there are two Indigenous child welfare agencies – Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services and Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services. Kina Gbezhgomi Child and Family Services provides prevention and child welfare services to seven First Nations communities within the Districts of Sudbury & Manitoulin: Sheguiandah First Nation, M’Chigeeng First Nation, Sheshegwaning First Nation, Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, Whitefish River First Nation and Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve. Nogdawindamin Family and Community Services provides prevention and protection services to the seven North Shore Tribal Council First Nation communities: Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, Batchewana First Nation, Garden River First Nation, Mississauga First Nation, Sagamok Anishnawbek, Serpent River First Nation and Thessalon First Nation.
- 2017 marks the 10th anniversary since the filing of the case by the First Nations Caring Society with respect to Native Child Welfare.
a) Take some time to reflect on what has happened in the last 10 years of your life.
b) Now, imagine what that looks like for a child/infant in care in terms of milestones, developmental achievements or historical events.
- How does the work being done by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada support First Nations children, youth and families?
Expanding Your Knowledge
- For more information about the Summary of Orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, visit:
First Nations Child Welfare: Summary of Orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal
- The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society website contains a wealth of information related to Indigenous child welfare. The following link contains a lot of information for children – videos and other learning resources:
First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada
- There is also a book called ‘Spirit Bear and Children Make History’ that talks about the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case. It’s about a teddy bear who witnessed the entire case—he is 11 years old now! You can receive a copy of the book by emailing email@example.com. Read about Spirit Bear by visiting:
FNCFCS: Spirit Bear
- The following timeline contains important reports and activities leading up to the human rights complaint filed in 2007 by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society as well as developments up until 2010:
Pre-Tribunal Timeline: History of First Nations Child and Family Services Funding