Human Rights Policy Analysis

We the stealers of children

Happy Canada Day! If you really are "the North", stand up for Indigenous families.

Warning: the following article contains details that some readers may find distressing. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

To my neighbours: shame on you.

I had hoped that – despite living in a rich, mostly white, suburban area – that this year people would tone down the fireworks and screaming and celebrating in light of the discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, I was left disappointed.

Canada Day is always a dicey holiday to celebrate given that it is effectively a celebration of genocide, but it seemed even more in bad taste this year. It’s telling that less than a day before “Canada” Day, 182 more unmarked graves were found near the ʔaq̓am cemetery at St. Eugene’s Mission School in Interior B.C.

It is also telling that these “discoveries” were already known about by Indigenous communities before the rest of us clued in. The presence of unmarked graves at former residential school sites was suspected by several Indigenous communities long before evidence from ground-penetrating radar came to light. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Niigaanwewidam Sinclair, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba, said, “Every Indigenous community has stories of lost children, so none of this is surprising. The only surprising element really is that Canadians are so surprised.”

To date, a total of 1,184 unmarked graves have been confirmed at three residential schools (Kamloops, Marieval, and Kootenay) with another 104 graves likely at a former school in Brandon, Manitoba.

This is not just a number. Each of these graves was a child who was ripped from their home, tortured, tormented, and abused. So how could we have celebrated this “Canada” Day?

Residential Schools

The origins of the residential school system goes back to the 1600s, when Christian missions arrived on Turtle Island. The missionaries believed white Christian Europeans to be the superior culture and deemed all Indigenous Peoples as “savages” with “primitive” beliefs and cultural practices. Through their missions, they began to attempt to “civilize” Indigenous Peoples by assimilating them into Christian beliefs.

Our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was responsible for ordering the creation of the residential schools. He drew inspiration from the industrial schools of the neighbouring U.S., where Indigenous children were taken for “education”. An 1897 report titled Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds from MacDonald’s consultant, Nicholas Flood Davin, stated, “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.” (Davin only visited one industrial school; the rest of his findings were based on conversations with U.S. government officials).

Indigenous Peoples, meanwhile, of course had extremely sensitive and complex systems of childcare in place. Though a gross oversimplification to say all Indigenous Peoples operated in this way, in general, Indigenous Peoples of Canada hold children in high regard and had sophisticated kinship systems for child-rearing. The job of raising a child was the responsibility of both the immediate and extended family. The assumed mistreatment of children by missionaries was simply a total lack of understanding of the differences between cultures in childcare practices. But instead of trying to better understand these unknown systems, the new Canadian government thought it would be in the children’s best interest to remove them from these “savage” environments.

From loving homes to true savagery were the children taken. Residential schools run by Christian churches cropped up across the country, proliferating rapidly from 1840 onward with guidance from Governor General Charles Bagot, Egerton Ryerson, Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada, and others. Attendance at residential schools, day schools, and industrial schools became mandatory for Indigenous children by 1894 through an amendment to the Indian Act*. Children who did not voluntarily attend were kidnapped by Indian Agents members of the RCMP (formerly the North-West Mounted Police) and forced to go. The goal was assimilation – according to the federal government in 1883, it was to “kill the Indian in the child”. Children who survived residential school and “graduated” were enfranchised, meaning that they were considered to have assimilated and lost their Indian status and thus what few rights they possessed under the Indian Act.

The federal government began purchasing residential schools by 1920. By this point, it was illegal for Indigenous children between the ages of 6 and 15 to attend other types of schools. Approximately 60% of all schools still were run by Christian churches; they and government officials forbade the students from speaking in their native languages, performing cultural practices, or eating traditional foods. The schools were intentionally located far away from reserves and ancestral lands to prevent family visits, which officials felt would hinder the assimilation process. By 1930, there were 130 federally-supported residential schools in Canada, with many more purely under the jurisdiction of Christian churches.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 report estimates that over 150,000 children were forced to attend residential schools. Of those, the report estimates that at least 3,000 – 6,000 children died or were killed (24-42%); however, due to negligible record-keeping, the refusal of the Catholic Church to release records, and the destruction of records, those numbers are likely far higher.

Children usually died from malnourishment or disease, though some died while attempting to escape back home. Sexual, mental, and physical abuse were the norm. When they were fed, it was stale or rotten food. Their hair was cut off. Many students were also experimented on for various medical conditions and procedures. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, the mortality rate at some residential schools was as high as 60%. Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce wrote in a 1907 report that the situation in residential schools was “so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse.” A rare whistleblower, Dr. Bryce was forced into early retirement by the federal government for publishing his findings.

The alleged point of the schools, aside from erasing Indigenous cultures, was to prepare students for life in a Eurocentric world. The children were supposed to learn English or French along with skills to help them find a “suitable” job, but the actual vocational training was ineffective and did not give students the skills they needed to survive in a world that had been forced upon them. Instead, the students often spent more time doing chores and tasks around maintaining the schools, such as cooking, cleaning, and agriculture. Furthermore, the system of teaching was nothing like Indigenous methods of teaching and was based entirely on European methods (which included corporal punishment).

Indigenous children were forced to endure conditions that would have been unthinkable to inflict upon white children by the churches and government. And yet they continued largely unchallenged. Even as they changed, they continued.

The Sixties Scoop

Beginning around 1945, policies surrounding Indigenous education began to shift because government funding was running low and (shockingly) their programs weren’t working very well.

Along with residential schools, Christian churches and the federal Department of Indian Affairs also ran day schools**. These were similar to residential schools in terms of their programs and the horrors that occurred there, but they were mostly not boarding schools. Children were allowed to go home at night to be with their families and so were in general closer to communities. Prior to the rise of residential schools around the late 1800s, this type of school was more widespread.

In 1948, the federal government again amended the Indian Act to remove compulsory attendance. Families were still coerced into sending their children to day and residential schools through financial incentives, though they were now allowed to attend other public school institutions. The government also began to receive backlash as the general public began to get wind of residential school practices.

This is not to say that residential schools were disbanded – they were rebranded.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the government aggressively removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them with (almost always) white European families. Children who could not be placed in a private home were sent to group homes. Residential schools remained open for this purpose. Though children were now allowed to attend public schools, they could still be forced to stay at residential schools if they were placed there for “welfare reasons”. A 1966 report estimated that nearly 60% of all children enrolled in residential schools in Saskatchewan were there because of this policy.

Patrick Johnston coined the term “Sixties Scoop” in his 1983 report, Native Children and the Child Welfare System following a conversation with a social worker who recounted how they would “scoop” newborns from their mothers. The Scoop was not a directly named policy, but rather the result of racist policies and a lack of training for social workers. In 1951, the provinces were granted the power to provide child services where the federal government could not. Social workers were not trained in Indigenous culture and value systems and so judged all communities and families through a Eurocentric lens. Even eating traditional foods could – and was – taken as a sign that the family was unable to provide “proper” nutrition and the child could be seized. By the 1970s, over 30% of children in the welfare system were Indigenous, and 70% of them were placed in non-Indigenous homes.

As in the residential schools, Indigenous culture was often suppressed in non-Indigenous households. Children were not allowed to speak their own languages, and some were told that they were some other ethnicity. Physical and sexual abuse were still rampant. Marcia Brown Martel, the representative plaintiff in a landmark Sixties Scoop lawsuit against Canada, recalled being told to wash off her “dirty brown colour” at one foster home.

Until 1980, children could be seized with no warning, no justification, and no notification. The Child, Family and Community Services Act of 1980 finally mandated that social workers had to at least notify the band when they took a child.

Patrick Johnston was commissioned to write his report following intense pressure from Indigenous groups and leaders. Unsurprisingly, it found that Indigenous children were grossly over-represented in the welfare system. Indian and Northern Affairs estimates that over 11,000 children were seized and adopted between 1960 to 1990, but the true number could be as high as 20,000. Indigenous communities did try to create their own child welfare groups and systems through the late 70s to early 80s, but they were limited by government regulation and the large gap in funding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

Today, Indigenous children are still over-represented in the welfare system. The last residential school closed in 1996, but Indigenous children are still being stolen.

How we take them now

You’d think things get better over time, that the seizure of Indigenous children would decrease in the modern age. Indigenous kids make up 7% of youth in Canada. And what’s the percentage of them in foster care?

Fifty-two percent.

Fifty-two percent of children in foster care in Canada under the age of 15 are Indigenous. That’s 15,000 kids as of 2016. And this figure only represents those living in private homes. When group homes and other shared living facilities are taken into account, the number is far higher. In Manitoba, 87% of children in care – that’s 10,000 kids – are Indigenous.

“Colonization is not over. It has a new name. Children are still being separated from their communities. Foster care is the new residential school system. The suicide epidemic is the new form of Indigenous genocide,” said Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, an MP for Nunavut.

The welfare system for Indigenous children works like this: services for First Nations children who normally live on reserve or in the Yukon are federally funded. All other services are funded provincially or by the territory. However, all welfare service agencies are subject to provincial or territorial legislation regardless of where they get their funding because the federal government has an agreement with the provinces and territories whereby they deliver the services on reserve. For off-reserve services, the provinces and territories will deliver the services along with providing funding. Indigenous children may be funneled through mainstream child welfare services or through more culturally sensitive Indigenous-specific agencies. Mainstream agencies historically and often presently do not provide culturally sensitive services, though this is slowly changing.

Though Indigenous-specific welfare services sound good on paper, on-reserve services are chronically underfunded compared to mainstream, off-reserve services. Non-status Indians and Métis (according to the Indian Act) may not be able to access what services exist for status Indians. And while First Nations and Métis agencies exist, there are no Inuit-specific agencies barring in Nunavut.

Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, alongside the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) filed a human rights complaint against the federal government in 2007. The complaint alleged that the government discriminated against Indigenous children by knowingly delivering poorer services and less funding to on-reserve agencies. The federal government was found guilty in 2016 and ordered to pay $40,000 to children who suffered because of the underfunding or who were unnecessarily removed from their families by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The Trudeau government has tried to overturn that decision since then, spending almost $10 million in legal fees and effectively taking Indigenous children to court over racist practices.

A lack of community supports also contributes to the disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous children in the foster care system. Intergenerational trauma as a result of colonialism, abuse, and genocide affects high numbers of Indigenous families. This leads to addiction, abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and neglect that would encourage child seizure by government agencies. Children, especially those from remote communities, are often taken far from their homes, families, cultures, as was the case with one family whose kids were taken 1,000 kilometres away. It is unknown how often non-Indigenous placement homes abuse or racially discriminate against Indigenous children.

Birth alerts are another discriminatory tool used to apprehend children. These tell child welfare agents that an infant may be at risk if their parent, usually the mother, is listed as “high-risk”, meaning agents can apprehend newborns without informing the parents. Parents can be labelled high-risk if they have a history of addiction, homelessness, or abuse – even if they were “homeless” because they were staying at a women’s shelter while escaping an abusive relationship. If the parent had a child seized previously, even if their life is completely different at present, they can still be flagged as being at higher risk. The fear of triggering a birth alert can prevent women from seeking medical assistance or treatment during and after their pregnancy. Ontario, B.C., and Manitoba have all pledged to end birth alerts, but even in provinces without them such as Alberta, Indigenous families are assessed by child and family services at a much higher rate than non-Indigenous families.

Because of Canada’s history of stealing Indigenous children and the intergenerational trauma that that inflicted, the odds are stacked against Indigenous families and communities. Systemic change is necessary to end discriminatory practices and to keep families together and supported.

The way forward

Change is coming, albeit slowly. More and more bands are developing their own child welfare services to support families and keep them together, or at least close to home. This can either be done through band by-laws to give the band jurisdiction over the services (which needs federal approval), through tripartite agreements, or through self-government agreements. All of these give Indigenous communities more control over what happens to their children.

The 2016 Daniels decision by the Supreme Court ordered that the federal government “must classify non-status Indians and Métis as ‘Indians’ under section 91(24) of the Constitution” (Vowel, 2016, para.3). If implemented fully, this means that non-status Indians and Métis would be able to access services through First Nations and Métis agencies, as well as funding for creating agencies of their own.

In terms of government action, a few initiatives have been pushed through. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the implementation of Jordan’s Principle, which is a legal requirement that service and funding gaps and delays between First Nations and non-First Nations agencies be eliminated.

Bill C-92, (An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families), was passed in June 2019 and aims to address the over-representation of Indigenous children in the welfare system. It establishes “national principles to help guide the provision of child and family services in relation to Indigenous children” and affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples to exercise jurisdiction over their own kids, meaning communities will be able to legally decide for themselves how to administer child welfare services. However, critics such as the Yellowhead Institute have argued that the Bill is weak and vague. They cite a lack of accountability at the provincial level (for how the “best interests of the child” can be interpreted and its reliance on “good faith”), zero binding commitments to an increase in funding, no commitment to an independent body that would be able to take action against Canada, loopholes in which Indigenous jurisdiction may be overridden, and no binding requirement to collect and publish data on Indigenous child welfare.

The governments of Canada love to talk about how we need to do better for Indigenous Peoples, but only as long as that doesn’t translate to actual funding commitments. If the welfare system is going to be improved, adequate funding is an absolute requirement. Furthermore, a far greater amount of funding needs to be channeled toward better community supports. Drinking water quality, lack of support for addiction, mental health and trauma survivors, poor and inadequate housing, ineffective childcare supports, and poor employment opportunities all contribute to family situations for Indigenous communities. Going after child welfare services grabs at the low-hanging fruits, not the roots, of the problem. A few provincial programs have been developed that are aimed at providing in-community support for families and pregnancy, but these again do nothing about major problems that Indigenous communities face.

Finally, the government must conduct a full-scale investigation of the day school system and order the Catholic Church to release all of their records related to schools run in Canada. The work of Dr. Bryce laid the groundwork for our current information on residential schools. Now, the picture must be completed. The held records are evidence that are necessary to mandate reparations for all survivors that is to be paid by the Catholic Church, especially since the Church paid less than 20% of what they were originally ordered. While both federal and some provincial governments have announced some funding to search residential school burial sites, this is not enough.

If we are serious about reconciliation – and I’m not convinced that we are – we need to address all of these things to protect Indigenous children. It’s beyond time that something was done about the current state of the system.

And then there’s Canada Day

There is no way around it: this country was built on genocide. We must acknowledge that throughout the year of course, but especially on the day where we are essentially celebrating that.

I live on the traditional territories of the Mississauga, Attiwonderonk (Neutral), Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ , and Ho-de-no-sau-nee-ga (Haudenosaunee), near a place called Tetio’neshóhon. In its current and most commonly known iteration, it is a white, affluent area filled with aggressively green lawns, SUVs, spoiled children, and a “me-first” attitude. Rarely do people seem to think about things beyond their immediate comfort. Though many protests were held on Canada Day, (for which I say a deep thank you), it was business as usual in my town. In fact, the fireworks took on a challenging air and continued throughout the weekend. They seemed to say: “How dare you try to take this from me.”


I’m not suggesting that we cancel Canada Day. As a child of immigrants – as almost all of us are – I have a complicated relationship with this country. I’m grateful for the opportunities that it has given me that I would not have gotten in most other places, but at the same time, I am horrified and ashamed of how we got here.

Instead of cancelling Canada Day, it should become Reflection Day – a day of remembrance and respect, humility and mourning. Yes, fireworks are fun. But they last for two minutes and terrify the animals. Plus, we get to set them off on Victoria Day (yikes) and New Year’s Eve, so we should be able to manage.

We cannot erase the past, but we can shape the future. Next Canada Day, we should use it of all days to educate ourselves and build relationships. Be thankful for the life and land you have here, but never forget why that is. Support Land Back initiatives and Indigenous land guardians. Support politicians who are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Learn on whose traditional territories you dwell, and which residential school was close to your home. And reflect on how this country, which is so much darker than poutine and hockey, tore Indigenous families apart – and how we continue to do so today.

You can read the full Truth and Reconciliation Commission report here.

*This article is part of a series on Indigenous history and policy on the lands now called Canada. Coming soon: a policy explainer on the Indian Act.

**Research on day schools is spotty compared to research on residential schools, which itself is incomplete. Day schools were omitted from both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report and from a $1.9bn CAD settlement for residential school survivors in 2006. However, in 2019 the Federal Court approved a national class settlement for day school survivors.

2 comments on “We the stealers of children

  1. Sareeta G.

    Absolutely spot on…


  2. After 34 years of news consumption, I have found that a disturbingly large number of categorized people, however precious their souls, can be considered thus treated as though disposable, even to an otherwise democratic nation. When the young children of those people take notice of this, tragically, they’re vulnerable to begin perceiving themselves as beings without value. Such psychological trauma can readily result in a debilitating drug addiction, a continuous attempt at silencing through self-medicating the pain of serious life trauma or PTSD. When I say this, I primarily have in mind indigenous-nation Canadians. But, tragically, such horrendous occurrences still happen on Earth, often enough going unrealized to the rest of the world; sadly, sometimes those atrocious acts are allowed to remain a buried secret.

    While the inhuman(e) devaluation of such people is based upon their race and/or culture, it still reminds me of an external devaluation, albeit a subconscious one, of the daily civilian lives lost in protractedly devastating war zones and heavily armed sieges. They can eventually receive meagre column inches on the back page in the First World’s daily news.

    Residential schooling (et al) was a serious attempt at annihilating native culture(s). The indigenous children’s mass graves, as sadly anticipated as the finds were (and still others are expected), must not be in vain. Rather, it must mark the start of a substantial progressive move forward for indigenous nations, especially regarding life’s fundamental necessities (i.e. proper shelter and clean air, water and food).


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