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New victims and the false lure of pure culture

Mark Milke, in his new book The Victim Cult, looks at some Indigenous policies of the Canadian government that are detrimental to native children.
Mark Milke Montreal, QC

The following is an excerpt from The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations, by Mark Milke, published by Thomas & Black, 2019. Milke, PhD., is an independent policy analyst, author of six books, and dozens of studies published in Canada and the United States.

It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

Serenity, the “most beautiful angel”

“Marie,” as the government named her but whose real name was Serenity, was a four-year-old native girl who in 2014 was admitted to a central Alberta hospital with dilated pupils, hypothermia, and a head injury. But Serenity had been a potential tragedy long before that day. Before she was born, two older half-siblings were removed from her mother’s home given her dependency on drugs, abuse of alcohol, and her live-in boyfriend’s violence. (Serenity’s father, “Wyatt,” was not normally involved with the family.) After Serenity came into the world, the provincial child welfare agency allowed her mother to keep her for a time; but after Wyatt appeared and beat Serenity’s mother in front of her, Serenity was placed in foster care at seven months of age.

Described later in a government report as a “a shy little girl” with “dark hair and big brown eyes,” her mother and social workers visited Serenity at her foster home and, by all accounts, found her healthy, thriving, and of normal weight. Also, the later review of her shortened life acknowledged that all three children were better off in foster care and likely grieved when moved from those families back to kin. But Serenity and her siblings were transferred back to the extended family (and presumably the reserve, though only alluded to in the government report) for the defensible impulse to protect families as families, except with the add-on policy preference that applies to no other ethnicity, to also support culture and the local community, i.e., the collective that is a First Nations reserve and where Serenity’s tragedy began.

Adoption policy in Alberta mandates identification of the father and mother if First Nation or Métis with the same information to be provided by those who wish to adopt and not for mere statistical purposes. Since at least the 1990s, Alberta policy preferred that where a child is assumed a resident of a First Nations reserve, or of that cultural background, the reserve government or its agents should approve or deny a child’s non-native adoption.

While not always followed in practice and thus criticized by some, this preference for kinship placement, as it is known, refers not only to direct relatives but also to the wider community, i.e., friends, neighbours, and institutionally to the reserve government and its agencies. In practice, the policy means First Nations politicians and civil servants hold actual institutional power over registered First Nations children. In 2014 and 2018, the Alberta government reaffirmed those policy preferences. A 2018 committee appointed to review child care intervention, along with the government response, both assumed that culture should play a larger role in foster care and adoption, that collective control based on ancestry was desirable, and that “colonization” explained much of the disparity between aboriginal and other Canadians.

In Serenity’s case, her grandparents volunteered to care for her and passed the usual checks, including past criminal activity and any record of past child intervention in the home. However, as the provincial report on Serenity’s death would later obliquely note, the grandparents’ other adult children living in the household were never vetted. That omission was contrary to policy, but it mattered less than one might hope. In Serenity’s case, just two months after the grandparents were given guardianship, someone in the community complained to Child Intervention Services. During the subsequent investigation, “unexplained” marks, bruises, and scratches were found on Serenity and her half-siblings; they also appeared malnourished.

The grandmother told the caseworker that Serenity had fallen and bruised her cheek and forehead. Serenity’s mother, who regularly visited her three children, told Child Intervention Services she was concerned that they were being hit and not given enough to eat, and that Serenity was left alone some nights in the basement. The mother told the caseworker that she wanted her three children moved back to a foster home. The response from the caseworker: “The situation is being assessed.”

After the investigation turned up nothing official, the matter was closed and the grandparents obtained private guardianship, a move supported by the Band designate. Alberta’s child services agency had no contact with the grandparents or Serenity for eight months, until shortly after Serenity’s fourth birthday when someone again reported the children appeared malnourished (and, as it turned out, had tapeworms) and were roaming about the community unsupervised.

Three months later, Serenity was admitted to hospital with an extensive brain injury and multiple bruises. The grandparents initially claimed Serenity fell from a swing. The next day, after questioning from   the social worker and the police, they admitted that they often hit Serenity “because she was bad, did not listen and stole food.” At the time Serenity was admitted to the hospital, her weight was equal to that of a one-year-old child, just 19 pounds. Serenity’s half-siblings, also underweight, were apprehended that same day and returned to a foster home. Serenity died from her injuries six days later.

Assigning blame: Not the adults but colonialism

In reviewing Serenity’s death, a later provincial government report noted that the grandparents may have had a more challenging time with all three children given the domestic abuse they had witnessed (while with their mother). The report also blamed colonial-era history, with the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate explaining cause-and-effect this way: “Aboriginal kinship caregivers may be resistant to getting involved with Child Intervention Services due to historical experiences of oppressive and culturally inappropriate services.” The report also referenced an Australian academic paper that complained of how standard approaches “to Indigenous kinship care do not take into account culturally specific customs, such as communication styles, parenting practices, physical environment, community relationships and household composition.”

In other words, when asked who was to blame for Children Services’ decision to place three native children with grandparents in a household with other adults not properly vetted, this to buttress the indigenous culture, the answer was anyone except the adults present with Serenity or provincial social workers or the Band designate. Instead, non-native social workers were blamed for their lack of cultural understanding, and a general notion of European-induced harm along with colonial history. This has now become a standard response for those who see present tragedies but not present causes. Modern-day harms are instead often traced back to colonialism, Europeans, the British and their progeny, policy, laws, and actions of 50 or 150 years ago. Responsibility assigned to adults in the present is thus foregone.

Medical notes were kept out of the official provincial review of Serenity’s short life but were later leaked to the media: They describe much else beyond the dyspeptic account given in the official report. While the official Child Services report summarized Serenity’s injuries as “unexplained,” the leaked notes reported bruising around Serenity’s pelvic area and that her hymen was gone.

To anyone not writing an official report or attempting to shift blame, such injuries were not inexplicable but obvious, and disturbing: A four-year-old native girl had been abused, starved, and raped by someone who was either family or part of the larger collective because of a policy preference for maintaining cultural continuity via the collective that is the reserve.

The proponents of such policy assumed that governments and others should support such collectives with the force of law and concurrent policy as opposed to the possibility of voluntary attachment to a culture. That preference led to decisions to give Serenity over to marginal caregivers, including her grandparents, merely because they shared the bloodline and/or the same community.

No matter how well-intentioned, Serenity’s placement back on or near the reserve was exactly what advocates of the notion of a purer culture wanted for aboriginal children: collective power over individuals based on a bloodline. The desire for the collective and an ostensible stronger aboriginal culture trumped other possibilities for Serenity’s care, including her own mother’s earlier wishes for the same.

From The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. Published by Thomas & Black. Copyright 2019 by Mark Milke. Foreword by Ellis Ross.

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