Aboriginal leaders are playing a dangerous game with the lives of aboriginal children.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, for example, says that the province should keep its hands off reserve children — especially those children who are most vulnerable.
Nepinak is opposed to provincial implementation of a centralized system that would track all children who receive care from child welfare agencies. That system was a key recommendation coming out of the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry.
“Other people think they can take better care of our children, whether it be providing a residential school education or, in today’s context, providing a home that’s not indigenous,” Nepinak told The Canadian Press. “The premise is inherently racist ... It's unfair to treat indigenous people at a different standard and it's unfair to go after information that is not rightfully with the provincial government.”
Grand Chief Terrance Nelson, head of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, used even stronger language.
“Children should not come off the reserves,” Nelson said. “If I took your children away from you, you would be screaming mad. We should be doing the same thing. The chiefs and the people should have guns at the reservation border saying ‘You’re not taking our children.’ That's how serious this situation is.”
When they allude to past wrongs like the residential school system or the “Sixties Scoop,” in which aboriginal children were deliberately taken off-reserve and placed with non-aboriginal families, they are remembering historic offences but forgetting the much more recent lessons that we should all learn from Phoenix Sinclair’s death.
Phoenix was taken into care when she was born and at times more than two dozen care agency workers were involved with her file. But she was returned again and again to her mother. After years of abuse by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Phoenix died at the age of five. The child was buried in a shallow grave near the dump on the Fisher River reserve and her murderers continued to collect child subsidy cheques for months before Phoenix was noted missing.
The problem isn’t that Phoenix was taken. The problem is that she was given back. As came out in the inquiry, there were plenty of warning signals that Phoenix was in danger, but there was no good way to connect all of those dots.
One of the 62 recommendations that came out of the inquiry into Phoenix’s death was the creation of a central tracking system — to identify those warning signals, to connect those dots, and to ensure that children like Phoenix wouldn’t again slip through the cracks.
It’s obvious that the relationship between the province and some aboriginals is fractious. But it’s abhorrent to try to exploit those cracks for political gain. Exploiting cracks tends to widen them — and that is putting more children at risk.
Aboriginal leaders should dial down the rhetoric and think a little bit harder about how they can best serve their communities. We suggest that it’s by working together with other levels of government, not against them.