Why is it taking so long for Manitoba Child and Family Services to return the children of a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community to their families?
If the parents of the 36 children still in CFS care have complied with the directions ordered by the government organization, as the community’s adviser Peter Rempel says they have, there should be no further road blocks to returning them to their families.
The fact that a year has passed and most of the children still remain in foster care and away from the community is appalling, especially for those parents who do not face charges of physically abusing their children. Only six have been returned to two of the community’s families.
Rempel, who recently penned an open letter to make officials and the public aware of the situation faced by the Old Order Mennonite community, says “the initiative, as well as power and authority, to act toward restoration resides almost exclusively with CFS and the Justice department.”
We have to wonder why the process of restoring these children to their parents has seemingly moved at a snail’s pace, or in fact stalled altogether.
We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that CFS workers believe the children could still be in danger of further abuse at the hands of members of the community, even after all the required meetings and therapy plans have been met. And there are still abuse charges against members of the community that have yet to be dealt with by the courts.
But CFS was criticized for being heavy handed when it first came to light that so many children were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in foster families.
And in the year that has passed since their removal, Rempel warns that the children’s exposure to more modern cultural norms such as motor vehicles, and houses with electricity, plumbed running water, Internet access and other media, has prompted their acclimation to a different lifestyle.
As a result, he says the children in care are distancing themselves from their home community, and may not want to adjust back to their community’s horse and buggy culture, and strict Christian traditions.
Most of us living in this province might wonder why this would be a bad thing — after all, shouldn’t all Manitobans have the right to live in safety with modern creature comforts, if they so choose? Why should these children be allowed any less, especially given the charges of abuse faced by 11 adult members of that community?
That argument, however, suggests that the state has the right to dictate cultural norms to its residents — what is right and what is wrong.
Most Canadians would agree that allegations of abuse of children should be investigated and punished by our justice system if there is cause to do so. But that doesn’t mean that any one culture — no matter how small or different than the norm — is necessarily less worthy of existence. Cultural and religious freedom is enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and must be respected.
Canada’s First Nations know all too well what happens when their culture has not been respected. Though not all had horrible experiences, far too many aboriginal students faced abuse under the country’s residential schools program, and were cut off from their parents and families.
That has led generations of social problems for men and women who could no longer relate to their parents and their original culture.
While the federal government’s forced assimilation of First Nations children through residential school systems was conducted by design as a means to “civilize” Canada’s aboriginal people, the actions of Manitoba’s CFS workers — though meant to prevent further harm to the community’s children — may have the unintentional consequence of destroying a small culture.
But even if the children were returned tomorrow, that consequence may now be unavoidable.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 7, 2014