Aboriginal children in Alberta make up 69 per cent of all children receivng child intervention services, despite governmernt services to help keep aboriginal children on reserves. (Photo courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons Licence) 

Words by Cameron Perrier with files from Santiago Gomez

“The hard truth? It’s racism,” said Peter Choate, assistant professor of social work at Mount Royal University and a registered social worker, on the state of aboriginal child welfare in Canada.


Aboriginal child welfare has had a troubled history in Canada. It is consistently underfunded by the federal government in comparison to non-aboriginal child welfare services, and systemically fueled by past racist policy.


Today, many of the issues aboriginal people face on reserve such as poverty, domestic violence and substance abuse stem from the intergenerational trauma of the Indian Residential School system. Choate said these traumas put families already in a marginalized position at an even greater disadvantage.


“If you look anywhere in the world where you have a population that is marginalized through poverty you then put significant systemic pressures on families and on parents in which they struggle for survival and in that you create disadvantages for children,” he said. “You create parents who are stressed, you create pregnancies that are stressed, you create caregiving environments that are stressed and that places children at disadvantage. So if as a society we’re not wiling to create policy that alleviates those pressures then we continue to disadvantage that population.”


When contacted, a spokesperson for Alberta Human Services said in an email, "Since April 2012, there has been a 20 per cent reduction in the number of aboriginal children receiving intervention service; and 19 per cent reduction in the number of Aboriginal children in care." 


According to documents provided by Alberta Human Services, between 2012-2013, the number of aboriginal children in the system was three times higher than the number of non-aboriginal children. Compared with the 2013 Municipal Affairs Population List, the percentage of aboriginal children in Alberta’s child welfare system by 2013 is 19.8 per cent of the aboriginal population, which is much higher than the 0.11 per cent of non-aboriginal children in government care. 

2015 statistics from Alberta Human Services indicate that despite the department's work, and a five-year funding model from the federal government, aboriginal children receiving government services is more than double their non-aboriginal counterparts. (Table courtesy of Alberta Human Services)

The most recent statistics from Alberta Human Services for the first quarter of 2015-16 show similar patterns. Despite the actual numbers of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal children and youth receiving government intervention services decreased, aboriginal children still comprise of 69 per cent of all children receiving government services.


Across the board, aboriginal child welfare is underfunded compared to funding for non-aboriginal services.


The auditor general’s Status Report released in June 2011 called on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (known at the time as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) to define its policy commitment on “comparable services” for child welfare funding.


While the department signed a funding model agreement with Alberta and a number of other provinces, the auditor general’s report listed INAC’s ability to define their commitments as “unsatisfactory.” The previous auditor general report in 2008 noted federal funding was "inadequate."

Photo courtesy of Mount Royal University
Consistent underfunding on reserve - Peter Choate -
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Peter Choate discusses the consistent underfunding of aboriginal child welfare in Alberta. (Produced by Cameron Perrier and Santiago Gomez)


Nowadays, the government of Alberta is working to involve the extended family and community in the first steps of aboriginal child intervention. Alberta Human Services states 87 per cent of all the children and youth that come to the attention of child welfare services are assisted without even needing to open a child intervention file.


In respect to aboriginal child welfare, the provincial government employs a number of programs in an attempt to keep children on reserve and connected to their culture.


The Kinship Care program "aims to ensure that the children and youth in care are culturally relevant placements whenever is possible," as quoted on the Human Services website. The first option in the program is to place the child with extended family or with someone in the community who is significant to the child. A part of this program is also the Aboriginal Caregiver program that encourages kinship care, adoption, foster care or private guardianship of aboriginal children in the welfare system. While Human Services could not provide specific numbers on how many Aboriginal Caregivers there are, the program asks “We need more Aboriginal caregivers so Aboriginal children who are unable to stay with their natural families stay connected to their communities and cultures,” on the Human Services webpage.


The overall goal of many aboriginal child welfare service delivery models, including Alberta and other federally funded service models is early intervention. A spokesperson from the Alberta Human Services said in an email “when Aboriginal children are connected to their families, communities and culture, they are empowered and more likely to lead happier and safer lives.”


In the final report on the residential school system from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, released in June 2015, five recommendations were made calling on the various levels of government to improve the state of aboriginal child welfare in Canada. These recommendations include:


  • Commit to reduce the amount of aboriginal children in care

  • In collaboration with the provinces and territories, commit to produce an annual public report on the amount of aboriginal children in care, compared to non-aboriginal children in care. This includes reason for apprehension, the effectiveness of child intervention services and how much overall is being spent.

  • To fully enact Jordan’s Principle

  • Establish national standards for aboriginal child welfare and child apprehension custody cases

  • Establish culturally appropriate parenting programs for aboriginal families.


Despite government resources dedicated to improving the lives of First Nation communities and reducing the amount of aboriginal children in care, Alberta still has the fourth highest amount of aboriginal children in care, behind , Choate says the conversation in Alberta is not as open compared to provinces such as B.C. and Manitoba.


“We perhaps have been less willing to have the conversation… but I would say we also haven’t had the kinds of public inquiries that we’ve had elsewhere in Canada,” he said, citing reports on child welfare in other provinces that led to serious reforms in policy.


Choate added “Alberta is starting to have more of the conversation that allows us to focus on these First Nations issues, but we have a long way to go.”


Choate also adds that an important factor in aboriginal child welfare is keeping children on reserve and in a stable environment.


“To support a family to keep their family together and to keep the child in the family is significantly cheaper than bringing a child into care,” he said. “It’s tied to better outcomes for children."

Suzanne Dzus, who went through the foster care system in Alberta during the Sixties Scoop and was interviewed for this project, said the government needs a complex approach to reducing the complex issue of aboriginal children in care.


“They used very complex strategies to fracture the families and to fracture our communities. It’s going to take so much more effort to be able to heal those families and to heal our communities,” she said.


“But it is about one kid at a time.” 

Suzanne Dzus, a Sixties Scoop survivor, explains from an indigenous perspective how communities can heal from intergenerational trauma that affects the aboriginal child welfare system. (Video by Cameron Perrier)

Since the publication of this site, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in favour of a human rights compaint from executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Cindy Blackstock on the inequitable funding for First Nation children on reserve. The federal Liberals have acknowledged the ruling and announced they would not appeal. In a post-budget interview with Canadian Press, minister for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada Carolyn Bennett said the following:


“We think the $635 million (over five years for child and family services) that we are committing to in this budget is significant ... We are very interested in working together to have less children in foster care, get children back to their communities as we’ve heard time and time again in the pre-inquiry hearings on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.”

GO BACK: Read, listen and watch the stories of Suzanne Dzus and Rhonda Chapman and their experiences with the Sixties Scoop

READ MORE: Learn more about the history behind the Sixties Scoop