‘I was denied the right to know about my roots’

When Natasha Reimer-Okemow thinks about the children buried on the sites of Canada’s former residential schools, she thinks about government systems that continue to separate Indigenous children from their families.

“I didn’t even know I was Indigenous until I was in my 20s,” she said. “I didn’t know my family was alive. I didn’t even know I had siblings.”

Reimer-Okemow, who is Nehinaw (Cree) and Jamaican, was placed into foster care in Manitoba shortly after her first birthday and remained a ward of the state until she was 21, with the exception of a few years when she was adopted into a white Christian family.

“I was denied the right to know about my roots. Any time I would even ask, I was told that I was not allowed to know. I was told that this is my new reality, this is my new family — always in the words of acting in my best interest,” she said.

“But my best interest was to be connected to my community, to not have everything stripped away from me.”

Advocates are calling attention to a system of family separation they say is not unlike residential schools — one that continues to this day and continues to harm Indigenous families, they say.

Fearless R2W — a Winnipeg group that works to support families involved in the child and family services system — says Indigenous children are vastly overrepresented in the foster system. That’s especially true for those from Winnipeg’s North End, where the apprehension rate is one in every six children, the group’s executive director says.

“Residential school. Sixties Scoop. Child welfare. They’re all chapters of the same book … just done differently,” said Mary Burton.

Mary Burton, seen here in a February 2015 file photo, is the executive director of Fearless R2W, a Winnipeg group that works to support families involved in the child and family services system. (CBC)

“The system is not broken, the system is working exactly the way the government wants it to.

“How do you break a parent? Take away the only thing they care about most in this world — their children.”

Fearless R2W is a volunteer-run group of community helpers and parents who provide opportunities for learning about child welfare in Manitoba and advocate for keeping families together.

Burton has experience with the system — as a child in foster care and later as a mother and grandmother.

“They apprehended my kids because my mom was babysitting while I was going to school to get my grades up,” she said.

Burton is currently the sole guardian of her three grandchildren, who were briefly in CFS care until she fought to get them back.

‘Support families instead of rip them apart’

In Canada, Indigenous children make up 7.7 per cent of the population up to the age of 14, but account for 52.2 per cent of children in foster care, according to federal census data from 2016.

The discrepancy is even worse in Manitoba.

There were 9,849 kids in care as of March 31, 2020, according to Manitoba Families’ latest annual report. Of those, 90 per cent were Indigenous children.

Some of those children in care have died.

The Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth has reported 144 deaths of children in the child welfare system since 2009, the office’s most recent annual report says.

Burton says although child apprehension may not be as deadly as residential schools were, it’s still harmful.

“There are different atrocities happening. Children are being traumatized by being ripped away from their families,” she said.

In her work with Fearless R2W, Burton works closely with families in Winnipeg who are under close scrutiny and risk having children taken away.

People call her at night, worried because they have no food and a social worker is doing a home visit the next morning, but payday is still days away.

“I get out of bed, get down to Walmart, buy a bunch of groceries, take it to their house, make sure they have groceries in their house, help them clean their house to make sure it looks presentable and then … [I’m] there the next day when CFS arrives,” Burton said.

“That’s what ‘it takes a village’ means. You call people that you know can help you.”

Current legislation on child welfare should be scrapped, Burton says.

“They need to abolish the current Child Child Welfare Act and create a new one — like, start from scratch,” she said.

The province of Manitoba says it’s committed to child welfare reform. In 2017, the Progressive Conservative government appointed an independent committee to review Manitoba’s existing legislation and make recommendations to improve it.

It’s also switched to what it calls “single envelope” funding — or block funding — of CFS authorities instead of making per-child payments.

Last week, the province announced a new supportive guardianship program that aims to help ensure children grow up with family members.

But Burton says there’s too much wrong with current legislation and it needs to be remade with affected families at the centre. The government needs to consult with advocates, community partners and “people who know what’s happening on the ground” to make changes, she says.

“Create policy and create procedures and create a new act that’s going to support families instead of rip them apart.”

Supporting one another

Reimer-Okemow considers herself a survivor of what some call the Millennium Scoop — an ongoing assimilation of Indigenous children and youth through Canada’s child welfare systems. 

“I just felt like I was meant to survive, not thrive,” she said.

Separating families has long-term implications.

Reimer-Okemow says one of the biggest challenges she faced was aging out of foster care and working to pursue her dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Natasha Reimer-Okemow, right, with her biological grandmother and sister. She recently connected with them for the first time. (Submitted by Natasha Reimer-Okemow)

She had very few skills that adults need to succeed in the world and had to “wing a lot of it,” she says.

She also says she got very little support to pursue her goals.

“I remember my guidance counsellor telling me that people like me don’t get happy endings. People like me don’t  become lawyers. Those aren’t options for foster kids like me.”

Reimer-Okemow pursued higher education, often feeling very lonely and alienated, like she didn’t belong.

“It was a lot of having to parent myself and tell myself that I could do it and be my own cheerleader.”

That’s when she discovered Indigenous student groups where she found people with similar life experiences she could tap for support.

Reimer-Okemow founded Foster Up, a peer support group for youth who are aging out of the foster care system and trying to navigate post-secondary education.

She is now a law student at the University of British Columbia. She’s also learning the Cree language and reconnecting with biological family members.

“There’s so many years of lost time that we had, so it’s been a healing journey for us,” she said.

“It’s starting to give me that peace and that sense of connection I’ve so long longed for.”

Reimer-Okemow founded Foster Up, a peer support group for youth who are aging out of the foster care system and trying to navigate post-secondary education. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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