In the wake of the Tina Fontaine report, a Winnipeg woman who spent her teen years in foster care is sharing her story.
The woman cannot be identified due to Manitoba’s child protection laws, however her experience helps to underline that there are many Indigenous children in foster care — like Fontaine, who was murdered at age 15 — who need help.
“There wasn’t a day until I was 15 years old that I didn’t run away from a foster home or a group home,” the Winnipeg woman said.
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At eight days old, the woman who spoke to Global News was given up for adoption. She ended up in the care of Manitoba’s Child and Family Services between the ages of three and five and then again from 12 until she “aged out” at 19. During her time in care, the woman lived in dozens of foster homes, group homes, hotels and shelters, always running away and often sleeping on the streets of Winnipeg.
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“There was nothing for me in the foster homes or the group homes. What was there for me on the street was family, was belonging, was purpose. They may have been gangs, it may have been sexual exploitation, but hey, that was providing me money, that was providing me family, that was providing me food, clothing and shelter,” she said.
The woman describes the CFS system in general as “genocidal.” She says that during her time in the system, only two per cent of her caregivers were Indigenous. Not being surrounded by her own culture had a major impact on her physical and mental health and her growth as a two-spirit, Indigenous woman. She was suicidal as a teen and still has suicidal ideations today but says she’s on a continuous healing journey.
“Not having my culture, not knowing who I was as a person and being torn apart by my original family members…it goes back even from my mom’s generation. That’s what makes it genocidal, is that we weren’t able to know our culture,” she said.
The woman tells Global News she had learning disabilities and what she describes as behavioural disabilities that non-Indigenous caregivers could not address. When asked if she suffered abuse in any of these situations, the woman said the whole system was abusive, pointing to specific issues like a lack of proper nutrition and adequate visits to doctors as well as not being taught life skills like budgeting or how to drive.
She says that seeking out her Indigenous culture gave her hope and furthered her resilience. Sometimes, that was through peers on the street. The woman also spent time at Ndinawemaaganag Endaawaad — the same Indigenous youth centre where Fontaine once went.
“It was the best place that kept me safe, off the streets and that really helped me stay grounded in my roots,” she said.
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The woman says she had about a dozen social workers and caseworkers during her foster care experience, many of whom were not helpful. But she did note that one social worker and two caseworkers made a positive difference.
“She understood,” the woman said of the standout social worker. “She…essentially did a risk assessment on me and saw that I was sexually exploited and took the right path to help me get off the street, get me into a program for sexually exploited girls and get me educated and graduated from high school, and here I am today.”
Now, at 27, the woman works with Indigenous youth. She says she’s not a role model, but a “real model …someone who is real and straight-up and straightforward and says it how it is and doesn’t play a role.”
In order to improve things in her province, the woman says the key is involving youth in the process.
“You need to be asking the youth what the underlying root causes are and then bringing those young people to the tables of these decision-makers,” she said.
She also believes that children need to be given back to Indigenous families — and that those families need to receive more financial support in the way that foster parents do.
The woman says she is still on a healing journey of her own. Global News asked what message she would send to Indigenous youth who are struggling in the system like she once did.
“Seek out your culture. Seek out what your ancestors have laid down for you,” she said. “I would say that you are strong, you are resilient and you are Indigenous.”