Any discussion of “vulnerable youth” must begin by defining the scope and meaning of that term. In this article, I include those persons under the age of 18 years who are particularly vulnerable to neglect, and/or harm of various sorts. Sometimes this is a result of poverty alone, and parental inability to provide as completely for all of the child(ren)’s needs as we would hope, given the wealth in Canadian society. In other situations, the needs of a child go beyond this, and include the requirement to be protected from direct harm. This includes sexual, physical and emotional abuse, as well as harm which can be caused by, or which can flow from, exposure to substance abuse problems of parents or other caregivers, and parental or other forms of adult violence.
By all accounts, the situation for vulnerable youth in Canada’s North is even more dire than in the southern regions of our country. Statistics Canada figures for 2010 show that children in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are at far greater risk of being a victim of violence than anywhere else in the country. Figures for 2007 showed rates of removal of children from their homes and placement into what are considered to be safer, protective settings (foster homes and the like) to be much higher in the N.W.T than in any other jurisdiction. And 2011 figures showed children in Nunavut were 10 times more likely to be the victim of a sexual offence than children in the rest of Canada.
Reasons for these are varied. However, it cannot be disputed that in the N.W.T (where a 2014 Auditor General report found that 95 percent of the children in need of assistance from child protection authorities are aboriginal) one, if not the main, factor is historical in nature: the overall disruption of aboriginal society and culture by way of the Residential Schools system.
If one were ever to try to devise an experiment to determine the results of the wholesale disruption of the social and cultural ways of a people, it is hard to imagine anything more grotesque than the system of Residential Schools which existed in Canada for about a century starting in the late 1800s. For decades, generations of aboriginal children were required by law to attend the schools which were operated by the Government of Canada, along with various mainstream churches. Because attendance was compulsory, police were often enlisted by school authorities to find, round up, and forcibly take the children of school-age away from their families and homes.
Once at the schools (and consistent with other aspects of general government policy at the time), authorities sought to eradicate all aspects of aboriginal culture, and to “re-educate” children to be “white” and “European”. Children were punished if they spoke their own languages or attempted to follow or practice any of their own traditions. In addition to these efforts at what has been (properly, in my view) called a form of genocide, individual children were often abused physically and sexually by priests, nuns, teachers, and other adults operating the school facilities.
Survivors of the schools often returned to their home communities having no true sense of belonging, to families they no longer knew, and to cultures and traditions with which they had lost touch. Generations of former students have suffered the results of their time at the Residential Schools and many turned to alcohol in an effort to escape the memories and the pain. Many others vented their pain by lashing out and becoming violent towards those around them, including loved ones with whom they had the closest contact. This, in turn, led to an increase in the incidence of violence and abuse in aboriginal homes, and higher rates of children in need of protection and assistance.
There can be no doubt that in Canada’s North, where the aboriginal population is highest, the intergenerational effects of the Residential Schools – decades after the last one closed its doors – are most acutely felt. Survivors of the schools often returned to their home communities having no true sense of belonging, to families they no longer knew, and to cultures and traditions with which they had lost touch. Even now, children whose parents were not in the schools continue to suffer the legacy. People who are now grandparents eventually returned from the schools and had families and children of their own. Being housed in the school system throughout their own formative years, of course, meant many ended up as adults with no actual experience of what it was like to be in a loving, supportive, caring home environment where real parents (and not teachers, nuns or priests) performed their traditional roles. This affected the situations of their own children (the first post-Schools generation), who often grew up in homes where violence and substance abuse were common. These people are now adults with children of their own: this second post-schools generation of young people is now being raised by those whose own parents had been students in the schools. The “ripple effect” of the lack of true experience in parenting is being passed down through the years.
This situation is illustrated virtually daily in court proceedings in the North. A particularly poignant example of this was brought home to me in a case of a young person who was charged with sexually assaulting another teenager. His mother approached me and told me that she felt somewhat responsible for her son’s misbehaviour because her generation had failed in its traditional roles when it came to educating children about proper sexual conduct. She told me that among her people it had traditionally been aunts and uncles who spoke to girls and boys about sexual customs and conduct, but this tradition had been completely disrupted when generations were sent away to Residential Schools. There, what little sexual education took place was delivered by teachers, priests and nuns. When the students returned to their communities, later generations were left without anyone to guide and teach them. Parents had never done so, and aunts and uncles no longer did so because, having been sent to the Schools, they did not return with an appreciation for this tradition.
In a Report issued in March, 2014, the Auditor General of Canada found the state of child protection services in the Northwest Territories to be well below what is necessary to properly respond to the needs of vulnerable children.
Even where the legacy of the Schools does not directly impact a family or individual, other, more common factors which also contribute to the rates of children in need are more prevalent in the North. In general, poverty, unemployment and substance abuse are more widespread. In many communities, the main employers are the territorial and local governments, and many jobs are seasonal only. Housing is an on-going challenge, especially for those living on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In many situations, a small, single family dwelling is occupied by various members of the extended family.
Sadly, the high levels of need in this part of Canada are not matched by a suitably high level of resources. In a Report issued in March, 2014, the Auditor General of Canada found the state of child protection services in the Northwest Territories to be well below what is necessary to properly respond to the needs of vulnerable children. This report echoes one released in 2011, also by the Auditor General, about the dismal state of the child welfare system in Nunvaut.
Like the reasons behind the needs, the reasons for the poor government responses are varied and multi-faceted.
To begin with, it is often difficult for governments to attract qualified and experienced child protection workersa small isolated northern community a child protection worker is likely to literally be a neighbour of the persons directly impacted by his or her decisions and actions; this only adds to the stresses and difficulties workers have to face and address on a daily bas. Most communities in which workers are placed are isolated and remote. And in Nunavut especially, a southern Canadian will also likely experience linguistic isolation, as many Inuit in small, remote communities speak little or no English. This leads to a situation where governments are desperate to fill positions and often have to select from applicants with little or no training or experience in the area, compared to the situation of social workers and child protection authorities in the South.
Furthermore, the small size of most communities in the North adds special challenges for someone in the position of a child protection worker. It is not uncommon for children to be apprehended and taken out of homes where they may have been exposed to violence or substance abuse, or both. And even where a child is not actually removed from a family’s home, the child welfare worker may come to know various sensitive and personal details of the people who live there. It is one thing for a worker to play such a role in a large southern Canadian city, where he or she is not likely to encounter the persons involved in cases and files outside of the work environment; it is quite another for a worker to have to perform such an often unpopular role in a small community of only 400 or 500 people. In a small isolated northern community a child protection worker is likely to literally be a neighbour of the persons directly impacted by his or her decisions and action. This only adds to the stresses and difficulties workers have to address on a daily basis.
When it comes to assessing the needs of children at risk, and placing them into safe settings when they have been removed from their family homes, resources are again very limited and restricted in northern Canada. The Auditor General’s report noted that in the N.W.T, the rates of suicide, substance abuse, pregnancy and crime for youth aged 16 to 18 are “markedly” above the national average, yet this age group receives the least assistance from child protection and other government authorities. The March 2014 Auditor General’s report found substandard investigations in almost 30% of the cases reviewed. No long-term risk assessments were being conducted, despite this being a mandatory requirement under the governing legislation. Children placed into the care of the child protection authorities were not being properly monitored and 69% of foster homes were not properly screened to ensure a safe environment for children placed there.
There is also a certain cultural tension when it comes to housing children in need of protection. Most aboriginal communities want to keep their children if possible, in order to ensure they grow up being aware of their cultural and traditional backgrounds and histories. Placement to outside, larger, southern Canadian centres is usually resisted. However, efforts to involve local community members on a long-term basis have generally failed. While the N.W.T legislation contemplates local committees which would take an active role in child welfare matters, in most communities, efforts to establish such groups have failed.
The Auditor General’s report addresses the situation of what is perhaps the most vulnerable group: youth between the ages of 16 and 18. Under the governing legislation, children are no longer entitled to protection when they reach the age of 16 years, and yet also cannot qualify for other forms of assistance (such as income support) until they turn 18. If they are already in care, they may choose to extend that assistance until they turn 18. Otherwise, at the discretion of child welfare workers, they may be offered a support agreement, but this is usually linked to specific needs or factors, such as continued attendance in school or counselling assistance. The Auditor General’s report noted that in the N.W.T, the rates of suicide, substance abuse, pregnancy and crime for youth aged 16 to 18 are “markedly” above the national average, yet this age group receives the least assistance from child protection and other government authorities.
Unfortunately then, in this part of Canada, where the need for proper child protection services and facilities is highest, there are additional inherent challenges and difficulties in properly meeting those needs. Experience teaches us that failure to properly protect children from neglect and abuse will only contribute to repetition of the cycles which led to those needs in the first place.
Among aboriginal communities in the North, there is an on-going effort to heal, and to return to something closer to more traditional ways of life. Combating substance abuse is a continuous effort, as are attempts to provide more employment and better housing, and encouraging youth to complete their education. While it will take many years to reverse the harm which has been done to aboriginal societies and traditions over the last 250 years, changes for the better are happening, slowly but surely. As the situation improves, the need for child protection assistance may begin to decline. In the meantime, all Canadians should remain concerned about the situations of vulnerable youth in every part of the country.