It’s a Friday morning. The sun is visible through the darkening clouds when Andrea Auger picks up her phone. She lives in Ottawa, halfway across the province from where I conduct the interview, and her voice is chipper when she answers.
“Good morning, Alexis,” she says. Her energy for the expected call is infectious. “It’s nice to finally talk to you.”
We’ve been communicating through email for the past few days, trying to find a date that works for the both of us. She was patient through the process — what we’re discussing is important to her. She’s the reconciliation and research manager for The Caring Society, a national organization for First Nations children and families, and public awareness is a vital component to getting people involved.
“Really, at the heart of our work, we want to make sure that First Nations children have the same opportunities as other children,” she tells me. “We were created because there was a recognized need for an agency to be a hub for policy and research for all of the First Nations child and family service agencies. What we really believe in is that everybody can make a difference. Even though these things seem like complicated issues and really complex, they’re actually not.”
An Oakville march organized by The Caring Society (Image Source: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society)
Auger has been with The Caring Society since 2005, and has been a valuable addition to the four-member staff. She’s responsible for managing research on the behaviours of First Nations children and the communities that raise them, explaining that parents aren’t the only figures to rely on for a child’s growth.
“With child welfare for First Nations kids, a lot of the communities that I’ve talked to really are about keeping kids in that community,” she says. Her voice is low as she sits in the Ottawa headquarters. “An indigenous community is traditionally where communities raise children. You don’t find it’s just parents’ responsibility to care for children; it’s also grandparents, aunts, and uncles — people within those close-knit communities.”
Her words remind me of a recent Statistics Canada report released by The Globe and Mail. The study shows that aboriginal and indigenous children make up half of the children in Canadian foster care. Auger acknowledges this, and says that while it is large communities that raise them, it is neglect that puts them at risk of being in foster care.
“What I found was that neglect was actually the top reason why First Nations kids are taken in the first place.” The facts behind her statement come from a Canadian Incidence Study in 2008 that evaluated children abuse and welfare. “The neglect happens due to reasons like poverty, poor housing, and caregiver substance misuse — a lot of which results from colonialism and residential schools.”
She believes that First Nations children are at risk of slower development due to the limited resources the federal government gives them, as opposed to other children agencies that are funded by the provincial government.
First Nations communities have a “distinct relationship” with the federal government, she says, who handles the funding for culture-related agencies.
First Nations agencies receive 22 percent less funding than other agencies that provide the same services. This is what led to The Caring Society’s decision (along with the Assembly of First Nations) to file a human rights complaint against the government of Canada in 2007.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission analyzed the evidence and testimony from various people who worked in First Nation child welfare around the country. Eventually, the commission found that the government was discriminating against 163,000 First Nations kids for not providing them the same services that other Canadian children get.
Image Source: First Nations Child and Family Caring Society
The Caring Society won the case last year, and they plan to celebrate the anniversary of it in the upcoming months.
“It’s a really important case because it has challenged the government of Canada and how they fund First Nations child welfare as well as other services to children,” she says. Her voice is filled with what sounds like pride. “What The Caring Society is doing is actually creating this movement of reconciliation and culturally-based equity for First Nations kids. It’s a little bit more of a quiet movement because we really work around peaceful change action, as opposed to radical protests and things like that.”
When I ask her about how else people can assist in making a difference in First Nations communities, she’s eager to tell me.
Online participants are encouraged to be active on social media — they can tweet, post on Facebook, and use the Internet to generate conversation on this important cause. She also recommends participating in Have A Heart Day, an annual event with The Caring Society that encourages people to write letters to parliament about First Nations issues. The letters are free to write, and can make a difference in bringing awareness to the communities.
“We want people to feel uplifted when making a difference, we don’t want people to feel guilty and for them to feel as though they did something wrong. It’s about — how do we move forward?”
It’s the people of Canada that they need help from, she says, because when it’s First Nations people asking for help their credibility is constantly questioned due to the stereotypes that surround them. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s one that Auger and her four colleagues are keen on continuing, one movement at a time.