By Galen Armstrong, Peace Valley Campaigner
As we watch with disgust as children are separated from their families and detained on the US-Mexico border, we must also take a wide-eyed look at our history of forced separation of children from their families and Indigenous peoples from their land here in Canada.
The residential school system began in the 1830s in Canada and forcibly removed 150,000 Indigenous children from their families, with the last of these schools closing in 1996 –only 22 years ago.
Taking Indigenous children away from their families didn’t stop with the end of residential schools. Canada removes Indigenous children from their families at a rate that ranks among the highest in the developed world. In 2016, First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth made up 52% of foster children younger than 14 in Canada, but represented only 8% of the same age group. These numbers only account for children in private households, and are estimated to be much higher if they included those who live in group homes, shelters or mental health facilities.
Last week, I spent time in Fort Chipewyan, home to a residential school referred to as ‘the Mission.’ Virtually every elder we spoke with had attended the school. While some elders told us that the experience ‘wasn’t so bad’ and that some of the teachers meant well, we also heard about very young children being taken from their homes, from their mother’s arms, and allowed only to visit their families for a short time in summer, if that. Some families followed their children, relocating to Fort Chipewyan so they could be near to them.
This is our colonial history, and it’s not all history. Indigenous families—in recent decades and today—are still being disrupted and forcibly relocated not only for the purposes of assimilation, but also to promote natural resource development.
In the late 1960s, the home of the Tsay Keh Dene was flooded as the Bennett Dam created the Williston Reservoir in north-eastern BC, and families were forced to flee.
Meanwhile, downstream in Fort Chipewyan and around the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the water dried up as the reservoir filled. Once it was full, the water returned, but not in the same way. The spring freshet was no longer predictable or guaranteed. Fishing and hunting areas accessible by boat since time immemorial were now blocked off by low water, according to elders who were raised living off the land and the delta. These changes had a devastating impact on families’ abilities to feed themselves and pass on important cultural and ecological knowledge to their children.
A few years ago, the crown corporation BC Hydro apologized for the flooding of Williston Reservoir and the destruction of Indigenous communities. In spite of this apology however, a new dam is under construction without the consent of the Indigenous peoples whose territory it will impact. Today BC Hydro continues its long search for bedrock and prepares to build Site C – the third dam on the Peace River.
If the Site C dam is built, Indigenous families will once again experience disruption and harm.
Treaty 8 Nations in northeastern BC have been leading a powerful fight, including a lawsuit launched by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations to uphold their rights and be able to continue their way of life in the Peace River Valley. Other Treaty 8 Nations downstream including the Mikisew Cree are advocating for restoration of the delta, impacted not only by the Peace River dams but the Alberta tar sands upstream on the Athabasca River.
Climate change, largely caused by industrial activity that displaces people from their land, also plays a massive role in displacing families and communities from their homes. It is estimated that tens of millions of climate refugees will be forced to leave their homes in coming decades as a result of climate change. As an increasing number of people are on the move globally, we need to make our communities more welcoming rather than building walls.
Taking kids away from their families and their culture is never right—not now in the US, not in the past or present in Canada, nor anywhere else in the world.
We are told by Indigenous elders that water is life. Separating children from their families is one side of the coin, and destroying the land, water, language and culture is the other. We must stand up against injustice and turn the tide, on all sides of the border.
If you want to take meaningful action to support Indigenous communities and land defenders, here are some suggestions:
- Send a letter calling on Trudeau to honour Indigenous rights and protect the Peace-Athabasca Delta by halting construction of Site C dam
- Support the Stakes in the Peace campaign to fundraise for First Nations’ legal challenges to Site C
- Support our Pull Together campaign raising money for Indigenous legal challenges to the Kinder Morgan tarsands pipeline and tankers
- Learn the history of the local First Nation and the territory you live on
- Learn the traditional name of your town/city and the names of notable landmarks (mountains, bays, etc.)
- Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action and learn what your local government is doing to uphold these recommendations. Encourage them to do more, or do better.
- Read books by Indigenous authors and deepen your learning by signing up for a course or workshop. Find suggested resources and content in this edition of our Sierra Life e-newsletter from 2017.
- Attend events hosted by local nations and events in your community marking National Indigenous Peoples’ Day on June 21:
National Indigenous Peoples’ Day events
We also encourage you to participate in a World Refugee Day event in your community! Here are some events happening across BC:
Feature image by Dan Dickinson