Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.
When Canada’s premiers meet next week in Charlottetown, I sincerely hope they will take the time to reflect on the tragic story of Tina Fontaine.
Tina is the 15-year-old Anishinabe girl whose body was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River this week – the sort of occurrence repeated all too often in cities and towns across Canada. While her family and community are left to pick up the broken pieces, her death has prompted demands to know what Canadian and aboriginal governments and service agencies are doing to address what is happening in the lives of many aboriginal girls and women.
Violence against aboriginal girls and women is an epidemic in this country, and has been for some time. An RCMP report released earlier this year showed that the percentage of female victims of murder in Canada who were aboriginal has nearly tripled – from eight per cent to 23 per cent – over the past 30 years. More than 1,000 aboriginal females have been murdered; many others have gone missing.
The premiers, participating in Council of the Federation meetings next week, have also been encouraged by highly respected former judge Ted Hughes to address the dramatic over-representation of aboriginal children and youth in the care of provincial government agencies.
Tina Fontaine was one of those children. She was in the care of Child and Family Services when she ran away this month. She was just another missing aboriginal girl in foster care when police happened upon her body while pursuing another search.
Mr. Hughes draws a connection between the over-representation of aboriginal children in the care system and the prevalence of violent outcomes for aboriginal women and girls. In a speech in Victoria in June, he said: “It is my belief that the unacceptable risk of violence that aboriginal women and girls face is attributable to the same factors that … explain the disproportionality with respect to aboriginal representation in the child-welfare system.”
Those factors include poverty, poor housing, intergenerational trauma, substance abuse and lack of educational and economic opportunities – all of which are linked to the fallout of colonization. In general, aboriginal children have poorer health status, lag significantly in educational outcomes, and are too often the victims of sexual exploitation and violence. Too many live in deep poverty. Too many drift through care with very few good services to directly support them.
Mr. Hughes, who is well-versed on the issue of child welfare in relation to Canada’s aboriginal population, said in June that “the horrors of life” that cause aboriginal children to be taken into care in such gross disproportion is a “significant national embarrassment.”
In my province of B.C., despite the fact that aboriginal children represent only about eight per cent of the child population, more than 50 per cent of the total children in care are aboriginal. Hundreds of reports of abuse against aboriginal girls are investigated by my office and others across Canada. The pathways to becoming a missing or murdered aboriginal female most often include persistent abuse and neglect. Are we doing enough about that? The sad truth is that we are not.
What Mr. Hughes and child advocates across the country are pushing for is a national strategy to address the factors behind this over-representation. As a former president of the Canadian Council of Child and Youth Advocates, I’ve seen how piecemeal the direct advocacy and supports are to aboriginal children and how few people in authority in our systems of services are brave enough to stand up to power, or to provide a voice for those children.
Most aboriginal families and all bands are affected, but despite a multitude of reports and a litany of tragic cases, we don’t have such a strategy. Yet we know that with effective and immediate services and supports these children can experience greater resilience, achieve success and feel the love and support they so deserve.
I echo Mr. Hughes’s call to the premiers to show courage on this issue and I extend that request to the Prime Minister to make it a major focus. The first priority is to comfort the victims and their families, but a serious and effective plan for change, rather than the silence and tolerance of continued abuse and neglect of aboriginal girls and women, is what is needed now.