Gerald Lavallee was just three months old when he had his first contact with the child welfare system.
By the time he was eight he was a permanent ward of the system in North Bay, Ont. By 14, he had been in more than 40 foster homes.
Lavallee, now 25, says all he ever wanted was someone to love him.
Looking back now, he realizes if the system had been equipped to help his family he might have had that in spades.
“My mom didn’t do drugs, she didn’t drink but she had crippling depression,” he said Thursday.
His family was suffering from the impact of residential schools which had scooped up his grandparents, who in turn passed on their anger to his mother.
Mental health care was not accessible to her. When the child welfare authorities came calling, family members were willing to take him in but they didn’t have the financial means. Instead of foster care funding going to them so they could take him in, Lavallee went to foster care.
“My great grandma, my grandpa and my aunt, to this day still say they would have taken me in if they’d had the chance,” he said.
It is exactly the kind of situation Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott says the system has to be able to address
Philpott is hosting a two-day emergency meeting on Indigenous child welfare, a system she says is in a “humanitarian crisis” that is reliving the residential schools legacy under the guise of child protection.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous politicians from provincial governments, along with social workers and former foster kids like Lavallee, are spending two days trying to come up with a way to fix it.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 ruled the government discriminated against First Nations kids on reserves because the only way they got the same child welfare funding and programming was if they were taken into care, often far from their home communities in non-Indigenous households.
Watch below: In January 2016, Quinn Campbell filed this report after the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminated against children living on reserves, specifically when it comes to child welfare services.
Philpott pledged repeatedly Thursday that there will be money for child welfare in the next federal budget but it has to be allocated to prevention, to programs aimed at helping families so kids aren’t just taken away.
It’s estimated 40,000 Indigenous kids are in foster care in Canada, more than 50 per cent of the total number of kids in care. But those numbers are not trustworthy, said Philpott.
“I don’t believe anyone actually knows how many Indigenous children are in care across the country. No one has good data about the rates of apprehension and where those children are going and why.”
Better data collection is one of the goals she unveiled at the meeting along with fully implementing the orders of the human rights tribunal, shifting to a prevention-based approach instead of apprehension, and more culturally-appropriate care.
Philpott also said one of the long-term goals is eventually for First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities to manage the system entirely on their own.
Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde said nobody has to wait for Ottawa or the provinces to hand over jurisdiction. First Nations, he said, should be taking it on themselves to pass their own child and family service laws.
“We don’t want delegated authority,” he said.
David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, said the Metis child and family services agency knew the day would come when a child would be harmed because there just wasn’t enough funding to go around.
“That call did come,” he said. “We lost one of our little children to suicide.”
He railed against a country that is one of the richest in the world but can’t find the funds to help keep kids alive.
“Could we have saved that girl? If additional resources were there, if additional strengths of tools and human resources were there could we have saved that girl? You’re damn tootin’ we could have.”
Jesse Downing is a 22 year old whose history with the foster care system goes back to before his first birthday. He spent his entire childhood in foster care. Finally at the age of 18 he found a home with a couple who saw him speak at an event and were willing to take him in as their own and give him the kind of love and support he had craved his entire life.
Downing says if anything is taken away from this two-day meeting in Ottawa he wants it to be that kids in foster care need to be loved, they need permanence and they need stability.
“Politics is so far away from the front lines,” said Downing. “I hope the minister will use her pull to make changes.”