The Indigenous Child Welfare System

Indigenous families and communities had their systems for caring for their children based on their cultural practices, laws, and traditions. Children were viewed as gifts from the creator and the parents’ responsibility was to raise the spirit of the child. Extended family were closely involved in the raising of the child. Traditional child rearing practices were disrupted by the imposition of colonial policies such as the Indian Act and the establishment of the residential school system.

According to Milloy (1999), in addition to being a force of assimilation, the residential schools served as mechanisms for state care for neglected and abused Indigenous children. When the residential school system began to phase out during the second half of the 20th century, responsibility for Indigenous child welfare shifted to the child welfare system.

In 1951, the  Indian Act was amended to include the “general law of applicability” (Section 88), which meant that provincial or territorial child welfare legislation could now be applied on-reserve. Initially, the provinces and territories could intervene on-reserve only in extreme emergencies. Under this new arrangement, the allocation of federal funds now allowed for the delivery of provincial and territorial support for on-reserve services. The result was a massive and permanent removal of Indigenous children from their homes and communities and placement in foster care and/or adoption. According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), over 11,000 Indigenous children were adopted between 1960 and 1990, a period coined the ‘Sixties Scoop.’

Indigenous Child Welfare Organizations

In response to the wide scale removal of Indigenous children from their homes and communities, as well as the horrific treatment of Indigenous children by provincial and territorial child welfare authorities, Indigenous groups began to explore the possibility of developing their own on-reserve, federally funded child welfare agencies (Auditor General of Canada, 2008).

In 1979, Northern Ontario Indian Bands began to raise concerns about the increasing numbers of Indigenous children in the care of Children’s Aid Societies. In December 1981, in response to these concerns, the Chiefs of Ontario endorsed the following Resolution:

“That the child welfare agencies of Ontario and Manitoba shall not remove our children from our reserves and shall return to their Bands those of our children whom they have removed in the past; and that we the Indian Nations in Ontario shall create our own Indian Child Welfare laws, policies and programs, based on the protection of the family and the preservation of their Indian culture within the Indian family.” (Dilico Anishinabek Family Care, 2018)

First Nations child and family service agencies have been in existence since the early 1980s. In Northern Ontario, Weechi-it-te-win Family Services was the first Indigenous organization to receive its child welfare mandate in 1983. Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services has been providing prevention services since 1986 and was the first mandated children’s aid society on reserve in the province of Ontario in 1991. Dilico Ojibway Child and Family Services received its mandate as a Native Children’s Aid Society in 1995.

In 1995, Kina Gbezghomi Child and Family Services, whose head office was located in Wikwemikong, was in the process of applying for society mandate but this was put on hold because the Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services, in collaboration with Indian Northern Affairs Canada, initiated a review of all Native Child Welfare agencies in Ontario. This affected the five Native agencies providing protection services as well as those that had pre-mandate status. As a result of this review process, the Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services issued a “moratorium” halting any future designations of Native Child Welfare agencies in Ontario. Major concerns expressed in the final report related to accountability mechanisms around the transfers of funds and delivery of service from the transferring agent to First Nation communities.

The number of Indigenous child welfare agencies has expanded since the government lifted its moratorium on the designation of new agencies. Indigenous child welfare agencies are challenged with complying with Directive 20-1 (a national funding formula directed at Indigenous child welfare agencies), provincial standards and strict controls on funding. Despite this, there is continued growth in the number of Indigenous child welfare agencies and their scope is expanding to include both on- and off-reserve populations as well.

Indigenous communities are recognizing that western mainstream approaches to child welfare are not working with their members as the developmental theories used fail to acknowledge ‘spirit.’ Indigenous approaches to addressing child welfare issues incorporate the worldview, cultural structures, and cultural attachment opportunities into service provision. Indigenous communities are moving towards a strong culturally restorative, bi-cultural practice model that incorporates both worldviews and their subsequent philosophies (Simard & Blight, 2011).

Learning Activities

  1. What do you think makes Indigenous child welfare agencies better suited to provide services that protect Indigenous families and preserve Indigenous culture?

Expanding Your Knowledge

  1. The following link takes you to the Weechi-it-te-win Family Services website. Take a few minutes to explore this website. What is your first impression of this website? How friendly is the website to Indigenous people?
    Weechi-it-te-win Family Services



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