Inquiry told Manitoba aboriginals need control of child welfare, schools

WINNIPEG – Aboriginals need more control over child welfare, education and other social programs because government efforts have largely failed them, a Manitoba inquiry was told Monday.

Aboriginal parents have good reason not to trust social workers who seize their children, lawyer Catherine Dunn said, given the impact of the residential school system which, for decades, separated children from their families.

“It comes back down to that kitchen door opening and somebody coming in and taking your children, and you saying to the mother ‘get past that … we’re here to help you.'”

“It is asking too much of aboriginal families in Manitoba who did trust the system, who gave their children away to the Indian residential school system and received them back as shadows of their former selves.”

Dunn represents Ka Ni Kanichihk, a non-profit group that provides community programs to at-risk aboriginals. She was the last of more than a dozen lawyers to make final submissions to the inquiry into the 2005 death of Phoenix Sinclair.

The inquiry is examining how the child welfare system failed to protect Phoenix, who was abused and beaten to death at the age of five by her mother and mother’s boyfriend. Phoenix had spent most of her life in foster care or with family friends and was killed shortly after social workers decided she could remain with her mother.

In its later stages, the inquiry has also been examining broader social issues — why aboriginal children make up the vast majority of children in care and why rates of poverty and substance abuse are high.

“We know why that is so and it has got nothing to do with parenting,” Dunn said.

“It has got to do with Indian residential schools. It has got to do with multi-generational trauma that resulted in unhealthy coping behaviours.”

Dunn called on inquiry Commissioner Ted Hughes to recommend more social programs be delivered through aboriginal-run groups. She also asked for more funding and said parents whose children have been taken by social workers should have the right to a publicly-funded advocate.

Earlier Monday, another lawyer called for a separate school system for aboriginals in Winnipeg. Greg Tramley, who represents the advocacy group Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, said it would be much like Manitoba’s Francophone school system — subject to provincial standards, but designed to protect the culture of its students.

“The community would then obviously have an ability to make it culturally appropriate and provide for some of the flexibility that isn’t there today.”

The inquiry has heard from 126 witnesses since it began last September. Lawyers are being given an opportunity this week to reply to each other’s final submissions. Hughes’ report is expected by mid-December.

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