‘Finding balance’

Former foster child says system should include cultural aspects

Ossie Michelin osmich@gmail.com
Published on August 4, 2015

Susan Onalik, formerly of Makkovik, spent ten years in the Newfoundland and Labrador foster care system. She says she felt culture shock when she first came home to her own culture in Nunatsiavut, but at the same time, says the experience in foster care also helped her in many respects.

©Submitted photo

As a child, Susan Onalik spent ten years within the Newfoundland and Labrador foster care system.

Onalik – who is originally from Makkovik — says she felt culture shock when she first came home to her own culture in Nunatsiavut.

“When I was in care I did lose a lot of my sense of community; the connection with my grandparents, (and) my elders,” Onalik recalls.

“But I did gain a lot of insight into direction, discipline and guidance that I didn’t have before, because of the abuse and addiction problems in the home where I was a child. When I was taken away I got the care I needed, but it didn’t include the cultural aspects.”

Onalik, who is now 25-years old and living in St. John’s, spent the ages of 6-16 as a foster child. She says more resources are needed in the system right now for both Aboriginal children and foster parents, so these important aspects of the child’s identity remains intact while in care.

Today, there is an over-representation of Aboriginal children across the foster care systems of all Canadian provinces and territories, meaning that — no matter where in Canada — the percentage of Aboriginal children in care greatly exceeds the percentage of Aboriginal children in the general population.

In a report issued after the latest premiers meeting last month in St John’s, Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders say they are working with Aboriginal organizations and communities to reduce the high prevalence of Aboriginal children within foster care systems across the country.

Onalik says she is happy the premiers and territorial leaders are talking about this, but she points out there are still thousands of Aboriginal children in foster care who need more support right now.

“It’s about finding balance,” says Onalik. “Finding the balance between protecting children from potentially harmful situations and maintaining Aboriginal culture, language, and traditions.”


The premiers’ report states the provinces are attempting just that.

For the last year, all ten provinces and three territories have been in communication with Aboriginal organizations in order to provide culturally appropriate services; identify the root causes of child abuse or neglect; and work on targeting families at risk for early intervention.

“What I want to know is how many Aboriginal people were at the table when they drafted this report?” asks Jack Penashue, the social health director for Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation.

“We’ve been saying (to do) this repeatedly for years.”

Penashue says Aboriginal people need to lead the policy development on foster care within their own communities. He explains social workers must adhere closely to policy in order to protect themselves should harm come to a child.

That is why, Penashue says, better policies need to be made by the people who know the best practices.

“That is Aboriginal people, not politicians,” he says. “Aboriginal people across the country have been calling for this, but it’s treated like it’s small problems. It’s happening all over, but it’s all one in the same.”

The current crisis facing aboriginal children has been building for generations, says Penashue, with its roots reaching back to the legacy of residential schools.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a good template on how work on those issues,” says Penashue.

“And don’t forget that part of the history of the foster care system is residential schools. We have to deal with the generations of trauma left by that, as well in order to deal with the problems in the system right now.”

Despite the newly forming working relationship between Aboriginal organizations the provinces, Penashue says a key player is missing: the federal government.

“This is not an isolated issue, this is a national issue, and the provinces and the federal government aren’t talking to each other,” Penashue points out.

Even though the premiers’ report notes it requested federal involvement, neither the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, nor the Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada responded to their call.

Child welfare systems in Canada are governed provincially, however much of life on reserve is the responsibility of the federal government — everything from health, housing, infrastructure, and education.

Penashue says until the federal government lives ups to its responsibilities in these matters, the provinces can do little to address the root cases of child abuse and neglect. He adds more resources are needed not only to help parents navigate the system to get their children back, but programs are needed to help them heal from their traumas in order to give their children the stability and support that they need.

“Most of the time the child is not the case, its the parents — alcohol, drugs, poverty; those are the reasons why it’s not safe for children,” says Penashue.

“It needs to start at the root of the problem, and that’s why we need all levels to participate — from the family, to the community, to the province right up to the federal government, we need everybody onboard to support (the child).”

For Susan Onalik, she says her experience in the foster care system was hard, but looking back, she feels that it gave her the stability of what she needed.

“In a way I got the best of both worlds, with a lot of good people and guidance,” she says. But she adds she still wishes there was a way in which she could have taken her culture with her at the same time.

Attempts were made by The Labradorian to reach Premier Paul Davis for comment on the Premiers’ report on Aboriginal Children in Care, but no one was available prior to publication.