Status Of Metis Children Within The Child Welfare System
STATUS OF METIS CHILDREN WITHIN THE
CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM
Lawrence J. Barkwell,
Manitoba Department of Justice,
77A Redwood Avenue,
Lyle N. Longclaws,
Lizzard Point I.R.,
Canada, R0J 0A0.
David N. Chartrand,
Manitoba Association of Friendship Centres,
605 Notre Dame Avenue,
Canada, R3B 1N3.
The child welfare system in Manitoba has moved in recent years from
the large scale export of Aboriginal children to parallel Indian and non-
Indian systems. Métis children, some 27% of the total, have been included
in the non-Indian category and continue to suffer from a lack of heritage
participation and control. The problem is considered to be systemic.
Le système de la sécurité sociale des enfants au Manitoba est passé
ces dernières années de l’exportation générale des enfants autochtones
aux systèmes analogues indiens et non-indiens. Les enfants métis,
environ 27% du total, sont comptés dans la catégorie non-indienne et
continuent à souffrir du manque de participation et de contrôle de
l’héritage. On considère le problème comme étant systémique.
In a national briefing paper prepared by the Métis National Council
(1989), the position was taken that with few exceptions, the provincial child
and family services and their supporting legislation are geared to urban
areas and to values and concepts originally derived from Europe. Further,
these services are delivered by staff who have little sensitivity to Métis
culture or values. Neither are there observed plans on the part of the
mainstream system to change this situation.
The result is that a disproportionate number of Métis children are
being taken into care, many for no other reason than the real life Métis
situation of living in poverty and overcrowded conditions. In effect, Métis
children are frequently being alienated from their families, their
communities and their culture for economic reasons. Such children often
are condemned to a succession of foster homes, thus creating a terrible
instability in their lives which defeats the reasons for taking them into care
in the first instance (Manitoba Métis Federation, Inc., 1989).
Poverty has never been an acceptable reason for depriving children
of their natural parents and their place in the extended family. The fact that
the practice is so prevalent in Métis communities suggests the degree to
which the Métis are a devalued people as well as the degree to which
provincial family and child welfare institutions and Métis society are
alienated from each other. Perhaps more importantly this type of
intervention has tragic consequences for these Métis children,
consequences illustrated by documented high rates of adoption
breakdown, and suicide, as well as by high rates of juvenile delinquency
(Barkwell et al, 1989).
The provinces so far have not taken any large scale measures to
adapt their family and child welfare services to Métis needs. It was the
judgement of the Métis National Council (Ibid.) that this was unlikely to
occur, judging from past experience, without aggressive action on the part
of the federal government. Provincial authorities, in the past, have tended
to adopt the view that the very large numbers of Métis children coming into
care are a result of inherent defects in Métis families, and not the outcome
of serious shortcomings in their own operations.
In an 1989 submission to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba,
the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) developed an analysis which clearly
demonstrated that of the many factors which interact to produce the over-
representation of Métis people as offenders (with high reinvolvement
rates), the single most highly weighted root factor was the treatment of
Métis children within the child and family service system. In addition, all of
the factors noted above interacted to make Métis people more susceptible
Child Welfare System 35
The operant conditions for the perpetuation of this cycle are as
1. There has been an historical repression of Métis customs, social
structures and support systems;
2. The Métis have little discretionary time or money available to
respond as a community to the problems of child welfare and
3. Official responses to social problems within the Métis community
are usually framed in terms of social control rather than social
4. Aboriginal people as a visible minority have been denigrated and
their history has been conveyed in a distorted way. This leads to
self-derogation, feelings of helplessness and alienation in young
5. The intended child welfare remedies have not worked for Métis
6. Official justice system interventions have been culturally alien and/
or irrelevant and poorly understood by the Métis community;
7. Participation in law making and the administration of laws,
particularly family law, has been effectively denied to the Métis;
8. The official justice system has acted in ways which engender
disrespect and cynicism within the Métis community;
9. In many instances child welfare, correctional and other related
services have been denied or not made available to the Métis.
When a people are weakened by these factors which we view as
additive as well as interactive, the symptoms of socially problematic
behaviors are inevitably found to be in ascendancy.
It has been a long held contention of Métis and other Aboriginal
people that, due to the fact that they have no control over child and family
services, and the fact that they are both poorly served and much devalued
by the mainstream system, their children and youths are cast by default
into the youth justice system.
This paper will review the overrepresentation of Métis children both in
the child welfare system and the criminal justice system of Manitoba. It will
also review how government policies and the implementation of those
policies, have exacerbated this overrepresentation. The authors will then
show that this situation is founded upon a lack of concern for and
awareness of Métis culture, and a consequent lack of community-based
services for these people.
We have found compelling evidence that this is indeed what is
happening. In the following section we will relate two instructive cases
recently heard by the Manitoba Court of Appeal.
The Young Offender – Child Welfare System Link
The first case is the appeal application of a 14 year old Métis youth
against a one year sentence to secure custody by the Youth Court.
youth was found guilty of four charges of break, enter and theft, one charge
of possession of stolen goods, one charge of assault, and one charge of
driving a motor vehicle without a licence. At point of disposition the youth
was 13 years old but three of the offences were committed when he was
twelve. He had no prior record of offences. At disposition the Youth Court
judge sentenced him to secure custody for one year on the break, enter
and theft from a dwelling (the only charge on which he was eligible at his
age for a custody sentence). He was also sentenced to two years of
probation supervision, following his release from custody, on each of the
The Appeal Court noted that, with respect to the most serious
charges, other youths had also been charged as co-accused, but had
received sentences of probation supervision.
The background information given to the Court of Appeal indicated
that the youth came from a small rural town with a mixed population,
Indian, Métis and non-Native. He lived as part of a single parent family. His
mother, three siblings and four other relatives lived in the nine person
household. His family described the youth as being beyond control. The
local child and family service agency was active with the family but had not
apprehended the young offender, despite the fact that he had been
expelled from school. The school authorities described the lad as bad
tempered, disrespectful, violent and defiant. The school had referred him
to child and family services because of his behaviour and their concern
over his intimidation of other students. The court was also told that the
youth claimed to drink regularly and that he smoked marijuana when it was
available. There was some indication that his associates left something to
be desired and the lad himself admitted that disassociation from his friends
was one way he could try to stay out of trouble.
The sentencing judge felt that the community and its institutions had
not done enough, and that for the young offender’s own welfare, he should
not be allowed to remain in the environment within which his habits and
attitude had developed. The sentencing judge had said:
It’s pathetic that the community could allow this to
happen…I feel that we should nip whatever problem he
has in the bud and get him the heck out of this community.
If Child Welfare won’t do it, the Court better do it…
Although the youth was under fourteen years of age and had no
previous Criminal Code convictions, he was sentenced to a term of
Although he was a permanent ward of Social Services, there was no
permanency planning, for whenever he asked his social worker for help,
he was referred to the Youth Emergency Shelter. In Desmeule’s analysis:
…this young man didn’t want just shelter. He wanted a
home – a real home – and not just a room in an institution.
He’s been a ward of the government since he was two,
and has been moved at least 40 times between foster
homes and institutions. Most recently, he lived with a
youth worker who kicked him out after a disagreement.
The longest he has lived in one place is one year. That is
his tragic story as a temporary ward of the government for
12 years, and a permanent ward for the past two years.
The system is failing this young man, and who knows how
many others. Hopefully, he won’t come to the tragic end of
Richard Cardinal, who hanged himself at 17 after a tragic
life that included 28 moves between foster homes and
Cardinal’s death spurred creation of a new Child Welfare
Act in Alberta that was to prevent further such tragedies.
Obviously that isn’t enough (Desmeules, 1988).
It is simply tragic that more often than not, Métis children have to
come into conflict with the law before they are provided with any support
services. The Manitoba Métis Federation child and family service workers
have received scores of service requests from Métis families who have
been denied service from the mainstream mandated agencies. Most often
when they ask for help for a youngster who is behaviorally beyond their
control, they are told, “he’s not in enough trouble yet to justify our agency
taking action.” Then pathetically, mothers whose children are locked up on
charges so serious that they can not get them released on bail, are told
that the child and family service agency wants to wait until the youth is
sentenced before doing any planning.
From the stories and evidence as related above it might be surprising
to learn that the over representation of Métis youths committed to custody
sentences by the youth courts (Table 1), mirrors the over representation of
Métis children brought into care by child and family services (Table 2). To
us, the reason is quite evident. Simply put, preventive services are either
not offered to Métis families, offered only after problems have become
severe, or are of such a weak intensity that the penetration into custody
situations or removal from home is not averted.