The federal government’s indecision in funding a critical community-developed foster care program for Innu children in Labrador is leading to devastating loss of identity, culture and language in dozens of children who are placed in care far from their communities and families, say Labrador Innu leaders.
They met with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett last week hoping to convince her to support funding for their Placement Capacity Project.
The project has been developed by the Innu communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu to allow more Innu children from troubled families to stay in their own communities, surrounded by their own language and culture, said Anastasia Qupee, Grand Chief of the Innu Nation.
Reaching a crisis
“It’s coming to a point where we’re reaching a crisis in our communities because far too many kids are being removed,” Qupee said. “And how can the families make connections with their kids if they’re not in the community to talk to them in their own language, to visit them, to reunite families.”
Currently, 61 Innu children in the child welfare system are placed outside the two Labrador Innu communities, according to the Labrador Innu leaders.
“We need it [the placement program] in our community because for far too long from both communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu we have seen our children being taken away to other non-Aboriginal communities and placed there,” Qupee said in a phone interview from Labrador. “When they start removing kids away from our communities, those children lose their connection to their families, to their communities, and their language and their culture.”
(click to listen to the interview with Anastasia Qupee)Listen
‘I want my son back’
Simeon Tshakapesh, Deputy Grand Chief of the Innu Nation, said some of the children who are removed from their communities have serious difficulties during and following their placement.
“In fact some have not been able to recover or have even committed suicide,” Tshakapesh said in a statement. “This includes my son, who died just a month ago, and I’ve lost nephews too. This project could help prevent that. Instead of feeling lost, far away, our kids would be able to stay within the Innu communities and get the services they need right at home, without leaving.”
During their brief but emotional meeting, Tshakapesh showed Bennett a photo of his son, Thunderheart — taken from Natuashish at the age of 14 and placed in the care of social services in Newfoundland.
“This is unacceptable that your children are being taken from you,” Bennett told him.
“Change it! Change it!” Tshakapesh shouted back.
“We are going to change it,” she said. “It is unacceptable.”
The Innu Nation needs a one-time federal investment of $3.7 million for training and building upgrades, Qupee said. Once operational, the placement facilities would run on existing funds through provincial service agreements, she said.
But all they got in response from Bennett so far are vague promises to look into the matter, Qupee said.
“It’s all words, words that are not put into action,” Qupee said. “And this what’s really frustrating that the government can say nice words to us but they’re not willing to put investment in our communities.”
Despite repeated requests, no one from Bennett’s office or from the federal Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs was available for comment.
Adapting to rapid change
Up until the 1960s, the Innu were a nomadic people who depended on what nature provided them for sustenance.
“We speak our language, we have our culture – English is a second language – and our people were nomadic people before,” Qupee said. “My mother’s generation were nomadic people and they were the last people that lived off the land full time.”
Since the 1960s the Innu have settled in two communities in Labrador (there are also Innu communities across the provincial boundary in Quebec). But the transition to a new way of life hasn’t been easy.
“It’s no secret that we’ve suffered from the effects of colonization,” Qupee said. “And some of the struggles are the intergenerational trauma, substance abuse, mental health and the lack of housing.”
With files from CBC News