l want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to the Michener Awards Foundation for granting me this four-month study leave to examine problems in Manitoba’s emerging native child welfare system. A sabbatical from daily deadlines to explore such an important issue was invaluable for me as a journalist.
My research into the decade-old aboriginal child welfare agencies revealed a system which is being pulled in all directions and ultimately failing to adequately protect children. At the heart of the problem is the disturbing three-way tug of war going on between aboriginal leaders, the province and Ottawa over control of child welfare. Aboriginal leaders say the agencies won’t flourish until they are self-governing and answer directly to the communities they serve. The province and Ottawa say there’s no way they’ll hand over complete control until the quality of service improves. The kicker, of course, is that there’s no more money to fund improvements. Until this stalemate is resolved, crucial resources needed to serve children’s best interests will continue to be diverted towards turf battles. This fight for control spills over into a host of conflicts between aboriginal agencies, the communities they serve and outside authorities like the police, other child welfare agencies and medical experts.
At the same time, the agencies are up against tremendous barriers in protecting children from rampant physical and sexual abuse and neglect on many reserves. Chronically under funded agencies with poorly trained staff have been trying to tackle overwhelming social problems on poverty-stricken reserves for over a decade now. Government-funded reviews of the agencies have repeatedly identified these problems over the years but failed to provide the resources needed to address them. Instead, the political solution has been to order another review when the next public controversy erupts over a child death.
Political interference by chiefs and band councillors – primarily in child abuse cases – is also a serious problem throughout the system. Chiefs and band councillors control the boards of most of the agencies leaving the door open for them to abuse their considerable power. Agency staff are vulnerable to censure from these politicians and have even been officially banned from one reserve in the wake of a sexual assault investigation into a chief’s relative. The majority of people l interviewed in all parts of the system said it’s time to “take the politics out of child welfare” by removing chiefs and band councillors from the boards of agencies and limiting their role to one of lobbying on funding and policy issues. The agencies are currently under extreme pressure from the province to move in this direction.
The study component of my leave took the form of an independent reading course with my University of Manitoba advisor Peter Hudson. Hudson, a social work professor, provided me with extensive reading lists and gave me access to background documents. l met with Hudson about six times to discuss the issues l was exploring and seek advice on my research. l appreciated the chance to do some in-depth reading on issues ranging from aboriginal self government to evaluations of the aboriginal child welfare agencies.
A major portion of my time was spent doing field research, including dozens of lengthy interviews with child welfare officials, lawyers, child abuse experts, aboriginal leaders and others. Many people were willing to talk to me “off the record” and provide insights into the agencies’ problems who normally would not talk to a reporter.
A trip to Little Grand Rapids reserve in mid-October helped immeasurably in understanding the tremendous social problems the agencies are tackling in remote communities. The urgency of those issues prompted me to write a news feature about the trip which was published in the Free Press later that month.
l also travelled to B.C. in early December to visit the Spallumcheen Indian Band’s child welfare program which is the same age as Manitoba’s agencies. l discovered that their program is facing some of the same problems – like political interference – but has also achieved a great deal of success in other ways. l also spent a few days in Vancouver where l interviewed other native leaders about the development of child welfare in other parts of the province.
l am enclosing copies of a series of articles based on some of my research which ran in the Free Press in January. You may also be interested in knowing l made mention of my Michener research during an interview on January 9 with CBC national radio’s Vicki Gabereau. She interviewed me after l won the Manitoba Human Rights Journalism Award for the second year in a row in December. l am also working on a book about Manitoba’s aboriginal child welfare system and have had a publisher express initial interest.
Thank you again for giving me this tremendous opportunity.