Reflections on Serenity

Opinion/Editorial by Dr. David Swann, MLA Calgary-Mountain View

For almost 9 months, I have been part of the Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention, which has been hearing from families and children who have been involved in the child intervention process at some stage or another.

This experience has done much to heighten my admiration and respect for the many front-line workers in the Children’s Services department, who are sent into extremely complex situations and must make extremely difficult decisions about the safety and well-being of the children involved.
It is also brought me closer to the grief these children and their families feel after having come in contact with the system.

All of us are concerned and seeking answers such as: how does a compassionate, well-intentioned move meant to keep children from harm ultimately end in their death, and how can we stop this from happening again?

These were the very questions brought to the forefront in the tragic case of Serenity, a four year-old Indigenous child, who died three years ago while in the care of a foster family. Her death triggered a two-fold inquiry aimed at improving the death review process and reducing the need to remove children from their homes in the first place.

While analyzing these issues, a troubling fact emerged, which is that Indigenous children make up the vast majority of people who are brought into the child intervention system – approximately 7,000 of the 10,000 children currently in government care are Indigenous.

Two years ago, as the Co-chair of the Mental Health Review Committee, I heard similar stories about weaknesses in Alberta’s mental health system, and, once again, Indigenous people were among those who were struggling the most.

We have also seen similar statistics in the criminal justice, social housing, and health systems. But, why?

One of the main reasons can be found in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). It identified the ongoing legacies from the terrible trauma of residential schools as perpetuating these inescapable cycles of poverty, violence, addiction and illness.

The report shows, in order to have a reasonable chance at success, Indigenous peoples must have self-determination and truly be able to influence decisions made about them and their families, and that these decisions must honour and reinforce their cultural identities. Not surprisingly, this finding was echoed in the two provincial reviews I have been a part of.

This is a tall order, especially since our modern society is creating many additional sources of stress, which even relatively healthy people are struggling to overcome.

Is it possible that through a joint commitment to each other’s well-being both cultures can be healed? Can a positive exchange of values and a spirit of humility today replace and repair the negative colonial interactions of the past?  It can, and it must. Besides, what other choice do we have?

Our two cultures got to where we are in the 21st Century together, and must find a way to move forward together. After all, we are all treaty people.