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They open the book with the Cheyenne proverb:

A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong their weapons.

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How Has the Federal Government influenced Indigenous identity in Canada?

In relation to Indigenous identity, the federal government has imposed many policies, laws, and definitions. This has complicated and confounded with Indigenous rights and identity. Limits on identity were written into the Indian Act, a piece of racialized legislation that still exists in Canada today. The Indian Act delineates who can be a “Status Indian” and who is relegated to the title “Non-Status”, meaning having no rights or fiduciary claims related to government instigated treaties through which Native land was transferred to Canada.

Today, many Indigenous people in Canada are concerned that Indigenous children are not receiving the same levels of funding as non-Indigenous Canadians. The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Executive Director Cindy Blackstock has launched a supreme court challenge to pressure Canada to address this inequality.

A Sense of Identity Equals a Sense of Belonging

We are constantly developing our identity, from birth to the end of our lives. We build it based on our relationships to relatives, friends, community, geography, language and other social factors. Identity plays a key role in  healthy child development Links to an external site. . When a child feels a sense of belonging to family, community and peers he or she is better able to deal with adversity.

The importance of identity is particularly true for Indigenous children’s healthy development, since community and belonging are important parts of their cultures’ belief systems. In recent years, Indigenous leaders have been striving to enhance children’s sense of belonging. Some have called this  a circle of connectedness. The circle is a sacred symbol in all Indigenous cultures. An emblem of wholeness, unity and infinity, it represents the cycles of life and the meaning of the universe. The  circle of connectedness sees the child at the centre, surrounded by his or her parents, who are in turn surrounded by their community.

Research in child development Links to an external site.  is clear that children’s success in school, work and life is linked to their early years. Currently 38 per cent of Indigenous people are children under the age of 15. This is proportionally twice as high as the rest of the Canadian population. Since the overall Indigenous population is much younger than the overall Canadian population, the healthy development of Indigenous children is especially crucial to the future of their communities.

Yet, Indigenous children often face daunting challenges to healthy child development. They are at a higher risk of living in poverty than other children in Canada. First Nations children suffer from high rates of diabetes and obesity. Inuit children are affected by environmental problems that are contaminating traditional food sources and drinking water. Some Aboriginal children are disadvantaged from birth as a result of  Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Links to an external site. . Often times, they face discrimination in their schools and other community services. Many Indigenous communities believe that they can overcome these challenges by fostering a sense of cultural identity in their children.

 

A Cultural Program for Children

Every day, 10 to 20 toddlers and preschool children gather at the Katl’odeeche First Nation Children’s Centre on the Hay River Dene Reserve, Northwest Territories. They are learning South Slavey, the language originally spoken on the reserve. They make crafts and sing songs based on legends and traditional life. They learn about local ceremonies and take part in community events. Culture and language are interwoven into every activity.

Elaine Rene-Tambour, coordinator of the centre, has been working in childcare for 35 years. She says she’s convinced that the centre is making a difference to the children involved. “The children are excited and proud to be speaking South Slavey and learning about their culture”.

The Katl’odeeche Centre is part of a larger movement in Indigenous communities across the country. Child development experts know that children with positive self-identity are more likely to grow up healthy and Indigenous leaders have believed this for some time. What’s more, they believe that raising children with a strong sense of cultural identity is key to healing the wounds in their communities – and to the survival of their culture.

Restoring identity

Given that identity is such an important aspect of Indigenous culture, it’s no wonder that certain historical events have been so devastating. From the turn of the century until the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were moved far from their families to residential schools. The aim of the schools was to educate and assimilate the children and the results were disastrous. The stories of emotional and physical abuse are well documented but there were also other types of damage. Children were forbidden to speak their traditional languages or to practice traditional customs. They were made to feel that their way of life was  “primitive” or  “sinful.” For many, the most vivid lessons they learned were disdain for their peoples’ way of life, and disconnectedness from their communities. Another unfortunate legacy of the residential schools is that their students later became parents without having role models for traditional childrearing. The wounds from this experience are still raw – currently close to 86,000 people still living once attended these schools.

Then, between the 1960s and 1980s, high numbers of Indigenous children were  “scooped” from their homes and placed in foster homes or adopted out. Usually, they were placed with non-Indigenous families and lost all ties with their natural families. The intention was to give the children the chance to grow up in more  “advantaged” homes. However, many adoptees have said that they felt a great sense of lost identity from the experience.

You may have the experience of having a child in your care recently learning that they are Indigenous (e.g. First Nations, Métis and Inuit). Due to historical racism and the history of Indigenous adoption, many people are still learning about their ancestry today. The most common way for a Métis person to learn they are Métis is when an elder shares this fact on their deathbed. Métis families have typically been told to not talk about being Métis because they would be excluded, denied jobs and subjected to racism. With a gradual increase in cultural safety, more and more people are taking pride in their ancestry.

You may learn of a child being reconnected with birth family. This process can create a lot of intense emotions for the child as well as for the child’s adoptive parents. You may need to work with great sensitivity at this time, to offer support and listening to the child and to the parents/caregivers. One of the things that is always helpful is to listen with gentleness and ask if there is something you can do to be helpful. Children can often be “caught in the middle” of adult situations, for various reasons, and family/tribal reunifications can be a sensitive time. The rewards can be many, but it can also be a time of upheaval with potential disappointments. However, historically, we are in a period in Canadian life where a large number of Aboriginal people are trying to find their roots, mending and restoring the relationships that were broken due to colonialism.

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