Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Mandryk: First Nations children our shame

By Murray Mandryk, The Leader-Post

It is our greatest failing as a province and a nation.

For more than a century now, we have failed to provide a place where First Nations kids could grow up in safety and security. And we continue to fail - largely because we choose to ignore, rather than confront, the root causes.

Sure, it is an issue that pops up on our radar every now and then. A traumatic event like the Pelican Narrows house fire, which killed two children and left another struggling with burns that will hospitalize her for months, forces us to confront the statistical reality that you are 10 times more likely to die in a house fire on a reserve. As a couple of journalistic colleagues discussed this week, is there any element about reserve life that doesn't make it 10 times more likely that you are going to die? Good journalism also sometimes forced us to re-engage in this issue. We saw that this week in the series by Leader-Post reporter Barb Pacholik and similar work by the CBC that delved into the estimated 500 children that have died in the past two decades while in Saskatchewan's child welfare system.

It's not that we are unsympathetic. The tragic deaths of helpless infants whose all-too-short lives are often plagued by addictions inherited from their mothers do - at least for a while - tug at our heartstrings. Their stories remain in the public conscience ... at least for a while.

But this fleeting awareness all too often gets bogged down in games of blame, as we are seeing from defensive social workers who rightly point to their excessive case loads as the source of the problem when it comes to monitoring foster homes. Notwithstanding the shortcomings of a Social Services care system that can simultaneously be overly bureaucratic in its restrictions and alarmingly cavalier when it comes to overcrowded foster homes, the problem isn't the social services delivery system.

The problem is a First Nations community that has never been given the economic or social support to help the next generation.

The reason we have a shortage of qualified caregivers - and public employees hired to monitor and ensure they get proper care - is because we have too many First Nations children in need of care. We have too many First Nations children in need of such care because we have too many parents - sometimes addicted to drugs or alcohol who have passed this legacy on to their children through Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) - who do not have enough parenting skills.

Sure, they might love their children. Alcoholics and other drug addicts certainly have the capacity to love their children and often do. But that doesn't mean they are qualified as caregivers - especially when it involves caring for babies already suffering from addictions when they are born.

But to blame First Nations parents for this mess is to neglect some obvious realities - the first being that many of these struggling parents were once wards of state themselves. And the reason they were wards of the state often had something to with their own struggling parents - many of whom were the victims of residential schools.

This is a massive part of our epic failure - one for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has rightly apologized. The reconciliation work has demonstrated a huge 4,000 children dying in the care of religious residential schools. The physical and sexual abuse First Nations children once endured in residential schools has contributed to our shameful legacy of children dying in the hands of the state today.

The system is run with an inexhaustible supply of blame. When we get done blaming the social workers and the entire social services system, we blame the parents. We blame the First Nations social services agencies that contributed mightily to the tragedy of Baby Andy (a Montreal Lake First Nation 19-monthold taken from a white foster home and returned to his mother's home where he would suffer brain damage), or the 2008 case of a threeand-a-half-year-old (taken from B.C. social services, then starved by her grandfather). We blame local chiefs who sometimes squander precious dollars.

We blame First Nations for not getting their act together after 100 years and some of us simultaneously bully a 13-year-old online for taking pride in her Indian heritage because of a logo on her sweatshirt.

But what we never seem to do is admit that we all have done our part to fail these children.

Really, that's where the blame should start.

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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