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Issues in research on Aboriginal children and families

Les enjeux de la recherche concernant l’enfance et la famille autochtones
Sébastien Grammond et Christiane Guay
Traduction de Abigail Mira
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les enjeux de la recherche concernant l’enfance et la famille autochtones [fr]


Cet article fait le point sur les politiques coloniales qui ont eu des impacts dévastateurs sur les enfants et les familles autochtones, dont la politique des pensionnats autochtones et l’application des régimes de protection de la jeunesse. Il examine les efforts qui sont déployés depuis une quarantaine d’années pour adapter les institutions étatiques qui affectent les enfants et les jeunes autochtones. Enfin, il donne un aperçu des enjeux culturels et identitaires auxquels font face les enfants, les jeunes et les familles autochtones, notamment concernant le territoire, les conceptions de la famille élargie et les pratiques parentales. Il poursuit par une réflexion sur la nécessaire autodétermination des peuples autochtones dans les domaines liés à l’enfance et à la famille.

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Texte intégral

1In Canada and elsewhere in the world, the relationships between Aboriginal peoples and dominant society have been the focus of increasing attention. As regards these relationships, issues relative to governance and to the land have long been a main focus. However, issues relative to childhood and the Aboriginal family are just as important. For many years, colonial policies strived to suppress Aboriginal cultures by severing ties between generations. For instance, the residential schools policy led by the Canadian government has recently been called a cultural genocide (TRC, 2015: 1-3), and we have gradually been recognizing the fact that the “Sixties scoop”, that is the massive adoption of Aboriginal children by non-Aboriginal parents, by way of the Youth protection services, had equally damaging results. At present, in Canada and elsewhere, children and the family are core demands in the search to decolonize the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of society.

2Research concerning the Aboriginals has until recently been dominated by disciplines such as history, law and anthropology. Research on children and the family are slowly carving out their own space. This is especially true as regards publications in French. With a few exceptions (Jérôme, 2005; Gagné and Jérôme, 2009), childhood and youth have not commanded much attention within francophone Aboriginal research. For example, a recent interdisciplinary collection of articles on the Aboriginals of Quebec does not includes a single paper on childhood or the family, nor any stemming from the fields of education, social work or psychology (Beaulieu, Gervais and Papillon, 2013). This issue of Enfances, Familles, Générations will thus contribute to filling a significant gap and raise awareness among francophone readers concerning the realities of the Aboriginal peoples.

3This introductory article will begin by supplying readers with the historical, political, demographical and sociological keys that are necessary to fully understanding the issues impacting Aboriginal families and children. Then, it will outline each piece, aiming to highlight what they all have in common.

Background elements: the Canadian example

4The peoples of the Americas and Oceania that were marginalized by European colonization are the best-known examples of Aboriginal realities, even though Aboriginal peoples can be found on other continents. According the United Nations, there are up to 370 million Aboriginal persons worldwide (for an overview, see Schulte-Tenckhoff, 1997; Bellier, 2013). In Canada, close to 1.4 million persons declared to be of Aboriginal identity in the 2011 census, that being equivalent to 4.3% of the country’s total population (Statistics Canada, 2015). Diversity is a characteristic of the Aboriginals of Canada, counting a dozen or so linguistic families and between sixty and eighty “nations” and hundreds of local communities. State imposed classifications, in particular the “Indian Status” which follows the rules established by a federal law called the Indian Act, as well as the concept of “Indian Band” (or “First Nation”), meaning a local community that is recognized by the federal government and lives on a territory called a “reservation” (on issues concerning status, see Grammond, 2008), overlap this diversity. Many Aboriginals do not have Indian status; others have been recognized in a comparable fashion (particularly the Inuit), but many others deal with the fact that their identity is silenced or questioned, being denied the rights of those whose status is recognized. Furthermore, a growing proportion of the Aboriginal population does not live on reservations, but in the cities.

5In Quebec, the population declaring an aboriginal identity is close to 142.000 persons, amounting to 1.8% of the province’s population. They can be divided into eleven nations (the Cree, the Innu, the Inuit, the Atikamekw, the Anishinaabeg (or Algonquin), the Huron-Wendat, the Mohawks, the Mi’kmaq, the Abenaki, the Maliseet and the Naskapi). Quebec is the Canadian province in which most Aboriginals speak an Aboriginal language (31%, compared to 15% in Canada in general). Quebec is also the province in which the highest proportion of Aboriginals lives on reservations (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2005), even though they are increasingly present in the cities.

6The socio-economic difficulties facing the Aboriginal peoples cannot be denied. As a segment of the Canadian population, the Aboriginals most frequently rank lowest in terms of key socio-economic indicators. There is no easy to access recent statistics but it clearly appears that the Aboriginal peoples, and in particular those living on the reservations, have a lower life expectancy, income, employment rate and school enrolment rate than the general population (see Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2005; Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 2015; Statistics Canada, 2015, Beaulieu, Gervais and Papillon, 2013: 20-26). Researchers have calculated the Human Development Index, an indicator used by the United Nations to assess population wellbeing in different countries, specifically concerning the Aboriginal peoples: whereas Canada ranks at the very top of international classifications, the Aboriginal peoples of Canada can be compared to the population of countries such as Brazil or Peru (Beavon and Cooke, 2003).

7One indicator that is particularly relevant to our topic is the Aboriginal age pyramid. Because of their higher birthrate, the Aboriginal peoples are younger than the general population. Youths under the age of 25 represent 46% of the Aboriginal population, compared to only 29% of the non-Aboriginal population. The median age of the Aboriginal population is 28 years, whereas it is 41 years in non-Aboriginal population (Statistics Canada, 2015). Lastly, it is of note concerning education, that lagging and school dropout rates remain high, making for very considerable disparities in the field. Thus in 2011, according to Statistics Canada (2015), 68% of Aboriginals aged 35 to 44 years old possessed at least a secondary school diploma, compared to 88.7% of non-Aboriginals. Despite recent efforts, notably in Quebec, meant to facilitate the access of young Aboriginals to education, the gap appears to be persisting (Beaulieu, Gervais and Papillon, 2013). Thus, the importance the importance of public policy concerning the Aboriginal family and youth cannot be overstated.

The lingering effects of Canadian colonial policies

8What distinguishes the Aboriginal peoples is not only having been the first inhabitants of a country or region but also having been subject to colonial policy. Colonialism, in this sense, is the domination of one society by another. And that is clearly what happened during European expansion, notably in the Americas as of the sixteenth century and, later on, in the Pacific.

9Initially rooted in the establishing of commercial monopolies, European colonialism gradually mutated into a system geared towards the extraction of the natural resources of the colonized territories, often entailing the installation of large populations of European origin. Initially considered as allies, the Aboriginal populations gradually became obstacles to the colonial project. Their territories thus had to be appropriated, which was achieved through means that, in retrospect, do not appear quite fair. In Canada, the objective was for the Aboriginal peoples to settle down on land plots called reservations (Dickason, 1996; CRPA, 1996, vol. 1; CDPDJ, 2009). In the Prairies provinces, the creation of reservations follows the treaties signed with the Aboriginals as of the late nineteenth century, whereas in Quebec the reservations were created unilaterally by the government. The creation of reservations also coincided with governmental action aiming at weakening the Aboriginal political organization and replacing it with western type institutions (Grammond, 2003; 2013).

10We are starting to acknowledge the fact that land was not the only objective of colonialism. As of the Confederation, the Canadian government plainly aimed to assimilate the Aboriginal peoples to the population of European origin, that is, to make any cultural or identity-affirming trait disappear and to fully transform the Aboriginals into Euro-Canadians. This expunging of the Aboriginal was in part juridical: for example, an Aboriginal woman lost her Indian status when marrying a non-Aboriginal. However, more radical methods were soon implemented. Realising the importance of education and the family as vehicles of cultural transmission, the Canadian government put into effect a residential schools policy (Miller, 1996; Milloy, 1999; CRPA, 1996, vol. 1; TRC, 2015). The goal was to separate the Aboriginal children from their family and their community, to isolate them from the influence of their culture, which was deemed nefarious, and then to instil in them, through education, the values and knowledge that would allow them to integrate into Euro-Canadian society. In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, who was then Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, told the Parliament that he planed on maintaining said policies until the total absorption of the Aboriginals into mainstream society and the disappearance of the “Indian Question” (quoted in CRPA, 1996, vol. 1: 195).

11The residential schools policy was a fiasco in the sense that it did not contribute to increasing educational attainment among Aboriginal children, many leaving without a diploma. In practice, the objective of fully absorbing the Aboriginals into Euro-Canadian society was not reached either. The residential schools also had considerable negative repercussions. Oftentimes, the standards of living were terrible, causing illness and the death of many of the children. The belittling of Aboriginal cultures, the ban on speaking Aboriginal languages, excessive discipline and instances of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the personnel caused deep trauma on entire generations of pupils. Even after closing the residential schools (which spread for the 1950s to the 1980s), the damage inflicted on Aboriginal children carried onto the following generations, in particular because those who suffered abuse during their childhood tend to replicate that abuse on their own children, as well as because life in the residential schools deprived the Aboriginal children of parental role-models (TRC, 2015: 137-138). In spite of the fact that sexual abuse was uncovered and exposed in the early 1990s, it took over 15 years for dominant society to acknowledge the historical tragedy. In 2006, the federal government set up a compensation programme for residential school survivors and, in 2008, the Prime minister solemnly apologized to the Aboriginal peoples for the residential schools policy, specifically recognizing that it had still has negative consequences. In the report it presented in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the residential schools policy had been an act of cultural genocide (TRC, 2015).

12The educational system is not the only governmental institution to have had a negative impact on the Aboriginal peoples. In the 1950s, the federal government asked the provinces to extend their services to the Aboriginal peoples. In this context, provincial youth protection services were administered to the Aboriginals. This quickly turned into a massive removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities, setting them up for adoption in non-Aboriginal families, a phenomenon now known as the “sixties scoop” (Johnston, 1983; CPRA, 1996, vol. 3 :26-32).

13Aboriginal children are still over-represented among the children who are put into foster care. A study led throughout Canada in 2008 uncovered the fact that Aboriginal children are 4.2 times more likely that non-Aboriginal children to be the subject of a report leading to investigation by child protective services, 8.7 times more likely to be the subject of a court application and 12.4 times more likely to be put into foster care (Sinha et al., 2011). This over-representation is also found in Quebec. A recent study has shown that the frequency of reports was 3.2 times higher among Aboriginal children as among other Quebecer children, that finding threats to security and development was 4.3 times higher and that placement in foster care was 5.5 times more frequent (Breton, Dufour et Lavergne, 2012). Thus child-protection services contribute to separating Aboriginal children from their families, their culture and their community. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee has issued a stern warning: in many aspects, youth protection systems perpetuate the residential schools policy (TRC, 2015: 141).

14Given that the Aboriginal family and children were a core issue in colonial policy, it is quite normal that they are directly concerned by efforts towards decolonization.

The will to establish a new relationship in Canada

15After the Second World War, but especially since the 1970s, the Aboriginal peoples have strengthened their resistance to colonial policy and their claims for greater justice, notably inspired by movements on a global scale pushing towards decolonization, self-determination and human rights. Not surprisingly, land issues have been the most visible. For example, in Quebec, Cree and Inuit territorial claims had to be settled by way of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975) to allow for hydroelectric development in the province (Gagnon et Rocher, 2002). Similar agreements have been reached in several other parts of Canada. At stake is less a retrocession of certain parts of the territory to the Aboriginal peoples than their participation in the decision-making process for major natural resource extraction projects as well as access to ensuing benefits.

16However, Aboriginal claims are not limited to governance and the land. As of the 1970s, the Aboriginals demanded and gradually obtained the administration of their own schools. Likewise, the massive removal of children from their communities and the over-representation of Aboriginal children within child-protection services led the Aboriginals to sharply criticise the system and to demand control over that type of institution. Thus, Aboriginal youth protection agencies were set up in a variety of forms starting in the 1980s (Sinclair et al., 2004). However these agencies are still obliged to apply provincial law (Guay and Grammond, 2012), just as schools must follow the main lines of the province established curricula.

17We are taking stock of the huge challenge posed by Aboriginal claims and demands. After all, doing away with four centuries of colonialism is not a small task. Indeed, as dominant society becomes aware of the depth of the injustices inflicted on the Aboriginals, the solutions that were adopted thirty or forty years ago, such as the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement come to appear unsatisfying, as innovative as they were in their time. Furthermore, Aboriginal institutions themselves are criticized from the inside. For example Aboriginal feminism questions the domination of men within band councils as well as the “masculine” orientation of the main Aboriginal demands, that are centered on the land, whereas topics that are of more interest to women, in particular issues connected to childhood and the family, get pushed aside (Napoleon, 2009). For example, the “Idle no More” movement of winter 2012 was directed as much towards the unilateral actions of the Canadian government as towards the inertia of the aboriginal political organization.

18At the same time, the inadequacy of the resources allocated to Aboriginal families and children is increasingly glaring. It must be known that in Canada the federal government has primary responsibility for and jurisdiction over the Aboriginal people. Even though it prompted the provinces to offer their public services to the Aboriginals, the provinces were reluctant to do so without financial compensation. The level of public service that the Aboriginals can have access to thus rests on a complex web of federal policy and agreements that involve either the provinces, or band councils. Often, the Aboriginals have access to less than other Canadians do. A recent example is that of pre-school for children over the age of four in Ontario: Aboriginal children in this province are not entitled to it because federal policy was not adjusted accordingly. In January 2015, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued a historical ruling declaring that the under-financing of youth protection services constituted an instance of racial discrimination towards Aboriginal children (on this topic one may refer to the article by Anne Levesque, Sarah Clarke and Cindy Blackstock, in this issue). Such inequalities are also seen in other areas, especially as regards education, service to victims of domestic violence and shelters (Arnaud, 2014).

19At the political level, Aboriginal peoples increasingly insist on the their right to self-determination being acknowledged, or as it is often called in the Canadian political vocabulary, on a “nation to nation relationship” with the government. For this type of a relationship to exist would for example mean that the Aboriginal people could freely define the broad lines of childhood and family services, without having to follow the norms established by non-Aboriginal governments.

20This is not an exclusively Canadian movement. Its international nature is illustrated by the United Nations adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People1 in 2007, a loud and clear proclamation of the Aboriginal peoples’ right to self-determination, particularly as regards the land and governance. The Declaration promotes the principle of “free, prior and informed consent” that the Aboriginal peoples should be able to give before any extraction of natural resources taking place on their territory or before the adoption by the Sate of laws or other measures affecting them. The Declaration also asserts the Aboriginal peoples right to governmental autonomy. Canada initially voted against this Declaration, but it currently upholds its principles and names it as an ideal to reach in its relationship with the Aboriginal peoples. Nevertheless, there is much work to be done before the principles established by the Declaration materialize (see for example, Guay and Grammond, 2010). In short, despite a change in tone on the government’s part, there is still a long way to go to fulfill the promise of an equal relationship.

Aboriginal youth and children and cultural and identity-related challenges

21Research and social practice among the Aboriginal peoples cannot overlook cultural and identity-related questions. Indeed, the concepts of identity and culture raise important theoretical difficulties and can contribute to feeding confusion if they are misused. In the social sciences, we generally agree on the rejection of an essentialist conception of culture, according to which each culture exists in a “pure” form and is comprised of a certain amount of “essential” elements that distinguish it from the other cultures. On the contrary, we consider that culture is intrinsically variable and dynamic (Cuche, 2010).

22Indeed, recent research shows that the Aboriginal peoples, far from being passively subject to the influence of dominant society, make their own choices and exert what sociologists call “historical action” (Martin, 2009) in order to shape the evolution of their society. Interaction with mainstream society comes with its share of constraints but it also creates opportunity. In this context it is normal that, as regards culture, the Aboriginal societies evolve just as, as a matter of fact, any other society does. The Aboriginal cultures are also not homogeneous. Obviously, they vary from one group to another, in the same way that there is not one unique European culture but a great variety of national and regional cultures. They can also vary within one given group. In short, Aboriginal cultures are no more rigid than other cultures and each individual can live his or her culture in his or her own way (Schulte-Tenckhoff, 1997: 151-166; Leclair, 2013).

23Thus considering Aboriginal cultures can seem puzzling, mostly because of the persistence of stereotypes within mainstream society, regarding what is “authentically” Aboriginal and what isn’t. An analysis of the cultural issues relative to Aboriginal youth and family clarifies this.

Aboriginal youth, the land and the search for origins

24Aboriginal societies have undergone significant changes in the last decades. Children and youths are at the heart of these changes, not only because they often end up placing them at odds with older generations but also because they are major players in them (Poirier, 2009; Bousquet, 2005). There is a striking example in the changes in the relationship to the land.

25Among several Aboriginal groups, sedentarization is a recent phenomenon and the older generations have the experience of a way of life based on seasonal patterns, with a large part of the year spend on the land for the purpose of hunting and fishing (Lacasse, 2004). Because of sedentarization and compulsory schooling, few youths now grow up “in the woods” such as was common fifty or sixty years ago. Nonetheless, a number of them have short experiences of life in the forest, often in the company of their elders, be it on the weekend or during summer vacations (Bousquet, 2005: 10-12). The young do not experience the connection to the land the way their grandparents did, but this connection does still hold an important symbolic space in the definition of their identity. This remains true even if a great number of Aboriginals willingly admit to their almost total lack of knowledge of the traditional lifestyle connected to a territory. However, most of them find it important to keep visiting the land and to learn some of the basics of life in that space (Guay, to be published).

26Thus, the land and territory cannot be considered in strictly materialistic terms, the way most the non-Aboriginals would. For the Aboriginals, the land is a place of education, socialization and healing (Guay and Martin, 2008). It provides an anchor for the individual and collective identity. We could consider, following Guay and Martin (2008), that the territory works as a “support line for intergenerational relationships”, that it is central to maintaining and valuing social and family relations (Jérôme, 2008) and that it plays a crucial role in the transmission of knowledge, the language and Aboriginal beliefs. The persistence of certain rituals that are connected to the land and protected from assimilationist policy showcases this (Roué, 2007).

27The example of the first steps ritual that is found, among others in Canada, among the Cree and the Atikamekw Nehirowisiwok, illustrates the spiritual and symbolic connection between the child and the land, the animals, and the spirits. It also highlights the child’s place within his or her family and community. Among the Cree, this ceremony officially signifies the introduction of the child to the outside world, a world associated to the realm of the spiritual. This ritual must be understood as an “introduction to the world of relationships between men and the spiritual beings that preside over hunting, inhabit and govern the “natural” world. An entire cosmology is a stake, the ritual allowing the child to enter the other world, that of the spiritual entities, for the first time” (Roué, 2007: 172).

28Since culture and identity are strongly interwoven – they can be compared to the two sides of a same coin – it is no surprise that upholding a strong connection to the land rests at the heart of the young Aboriginals’ own definition of identity. Identity is also connected to the search for origins and maintaining continuity with the past generations. In this respect, the land is full of meaning, since it allows the young Aboriginals to literally follow in their elders’ footsteps. This is why, for some Aboriginals, “learning were we come from and who we are is just as important as learning how to read” (Martin and Capitaine, 2005: 53).

29According to Innu social workers that were met in a research setting, “regaining the sense of and pride in their identity is an essential step in view of the malaise regarding identity that affects the community and particularly the young generation. Thus, the intrinsic connection between the territory and the culture and identity makes the land a privileged space as regards the beginnings of healing process” (Guay, to be published).

30In practical terms, the land can be a tool for personal growth. In several Aboriginal communities a stay on the land is a healing experience that can for example be offered to youths that are struggling with personal issues. The experience can leads the youths not only to associate with their elders and to acquire knowledge relative to life in the forest, but also to grow pride in their mastering of these techniques and in reclaiming Aboriginal values. Such experiences are a promising alternative to the solutions that are currently offered by the youth protection service or the penal justice system.

31In short, for the Aboriginals and in particular for the young, the territory is a source of historical action, in that it offers a set of reference points that contribute to defining a future that is not merely a replication of the past (Guay and Martin, 2008; Martin, 2009). An Innu speaker provides an allegory that perfectly illustrates this:

  • 2 «Today’s youth is like an arrow with a string that is at rest: if we let go the arrow will fall to (...)

Le jeune d’aujourd’hui, c’est comme la flèche qui est au repos par rapport à la corde : si on laisse aller, la flèche va tomber par terre. Il faut seulement prendre la flèche, donner un élan vers l’arrière, puis laisser la flèche : la flèche va naturellement aller vers l’avant. C’est une autre façon d’imager ce que je veux dire, quand je parle de reconnexion culturelle et identitaire (dans Guay, à paraître)2

The aboriginal family

32Recognising variability and the dynamic nature of cultures must not let us minimise the importance of Aboriginal cultural difference. Becoming aware of this is all the more important in view of the fact that State institutions are designed according to the cultural norms of western society. This can be illustrated through the example of the family. State institutions, such as family law or the youth protection system, are based on certain assumptions. For example, the importance of the nuclear family as the basic unit of society is taken for granted, as is a parenting model that dictates specific attitudes and behaviours that the parents should adopt in educating their children. Even if the system purports to be neutral and objective, its defining standards and their practical implementation are loaded with the cultural values and the beliefs of dominant society. Thus, the Aboriginal peoples generally consider the family to be more than the mere nuclear family (Poirier, 2009: 24 ; Sigouin, Charpentier and Quéniart, 2010 ; Guay, 2015 ; Guay and Grammond, 2012). Within the family network, uncles, aunts, cousins or grandparents can have responsibilities towards a child. In practice, the family life of most Aboriginal families is, to this day, based mainly on a complex kinship structure and interconnections that unite all of the members of the family, including members of the extended family and close friends. Furthermore, the rules and principles of the education of children are different from those of the dominant parenting model, such as respecting the children’s autonomy and using indirect strategies to influence their behaviour (Guay, 2015).

33Parenting practices pertain to educational models that are materialized in a set of attitudes and behaviours that the parents adopt regarding the children. Contrary to the actual western view that establishes or promotes a standardized model in which the phases associated to the child’s development are clearly outlined, the preferred educational style in Aboriginal societies is very open to respecting each child’s personal rhythm. Thus, as Hicks (2012) has explained, all those who work alongside Aboriginal families should keep in mind that the understanding of a child’s development is based first and foremost on his or her uniqueness and a great trust in his or her capacities. Parents, however, have the freedom to accompany and support their children according to their wishes, in whichever way they deem most appropriate.

34Traditional parenting practices also provide models that stay coherent and important for the parents. Sadly, the considerable differences between the Aboriginal and Westerns patterns of socialization oftentimes give non-Aboriginal social workers the impression that Aboriginal parents do not feel directly involved and concerned by the well-being and the development of their children or, in other words, that they are not committed to their education. It appears rather, and that is what Ryan (2011) as well as Muir and Bohr (2014) emphasise, that they simply wish to pass on values that are meaningful to them. We must stress the fact that protection, childcare and traditional teachings lay at the heart of contemporary Aboriginal educational practices (Guay, 2015; Irvine, 2009; hicks, 2012) and that judgements based mostly on the misunderstanding of kinship structures and the practices that derive from them are quite hazardous. A deeper knowledge of the foundations of family and ensuing practices would allow non-Aboriginal social workers to make better use of them.

From the adaptation of services to institutional governance

35It follows that one of the major challenges facing State institutions, when they are in contact with the Aboriginals, is to take into account cultural difference and the perverse consequences of the application of supposedly objective norms that are actually those of western society.

36Adapting these institutions to Aboriginal cultural norms is a recurring theme in the articles that are gathered in this issue (see also, concerning the youth protection system, Guay, Jacques and Grammond, 2014). We must however note that this adaptation is often very lacking because the State retains the authority to decide its terms and because the principles that guide State intervention (for example, the child’s best interest or the integrity of school curricula) supersede the possibility of taking Aboriginal cultural difference into account.

37As for social services, in particular as regards youth protection, Aboriginal workers often have very little room for manoeuvre. This will to implement specific practices does not follow dissent as to the principles underlying the Youth Protection Act, in particular the child’s best interest. It is, rather, a question of applying these principles in a manner that is compatible with Aboriginal realities. However, even when Aboriginal organizations hold certain mandates, such as providing care, the legal context governs and limits the practice of those who work there. Consequently, the manner in which the law is applied does not make it possible to take into account the reality of Aboriginal families, their needs and their values (Guay, to be published).

38Thus, a greater degree of autonomy is needed as regards childhood services if we want to ensure true reconciliation with the Aboriginal peoples. The example of the Atikamekw authority intervention system (see the article by Fournier in this issue) is quite instructive in this respect. Indeed, several recent studies show that Aboriginal governance of social services has positive outcomes, because it privileges the development of original community-based approaches to ensure the safety and development of Aboriginal youths (Blackstock and Trocmé, 2005). Furthermore, it is a known fact that the Aboriginal communities that have a greater degree of autonomy as regards internal governance show better socio-economic indicators (Cornell and Kalt, 1992). In short, Aboriginal youth protection agencies are better able to grasp and comprehend the cultural realities of the communities they serve (Sinclair et al., 2004). Their personnel, being mostly Aboriginal, can interpret the law in a way that is more compatible with the Aboriginal lifestyle, beliefs and values. Moreover, governance over social services would make it possible to bring cultural values such as the family, mutual aid and respect, which we believe to be mishandled by the current youth protection system, to the forefront. Governance in this area could be “the cornerstone of a community political program, that is of a social project that would make social services a product of the culture itself rather than an exogenous institution” (Guay, to be published).

39We can set up a governance model for Aboriginal social services giving the Aboriginals total and absolute control over areas such as, for example, youth protection. Admittedly, setting up this kind of governance projects demands political will and as a real commitment to securing adequate funding from the government. We could even consider setting such projects up progressively, thus allowing the communities to acquire the skills and the experience necessary to developing their own governance models. Either way, this raises the question of defining and developing governance models that are relevant and culturally appropriate. At the time being there are but few studies on the topic, especially as regards the provision of social services.

Overview of the articles

40The Aboriginal reality is complex and there is much that can be the object of study. The diversity of viewpoints and topics that are addressed in this issue will thus come as no surprise. Even though seven of the nine articles focus on the Canadian situation, the research can doubtless be transposed to other Aboriginal contexts. The articles are connected to three main topics. The first is that of the effects of colonisation, referring not only to past policy, such as the residential school policy, but also to the consequences of the power relationships that are predicated on the coexistence of the Aboriginal peoples and dominant society. The two other topics are connected to two of the institutions of dominant society that play a great role in the life of Aboriginal children: the youth protection system and the educational system.

41Some of the authors hail from disciplines such as social work, law or education, disciplines that were involved in the colonial project and that are now struggling to adopt a more respectful attitude towards the Aboriginal peoples. Thus, most of the studies tackle the interaction between dominant society and its institutions, on the one hand, and Aboriginal children and families, on the other.

The effects of colonization

42In Canada, the residential schools system is probably the worst hardship the Aboriginal peoples were ever subject to. Even though the residential schools have been closed for at least thirty years, their consequences are still felt. The intergenerational transmission of the trauma connected to the residential schools is the subject of the article by Jacynthe Dion, Jennifer Hains, Amélie Ross and Delphine Collin-Vézina. While this inheritance is often referred to in the literature, the originality of this study is that it provides a quantitative picture of certain types of serious traumatisms (gambling and drug addiction, sexual abuse, etc.) among members of the First Nations. The authors show that these traumatisms are more common among not only the individuals that attended the residential schools, but also their children. This provides a dramatic illustration of the effects that the residential schools still have, more than thirty years after their closing.

43Even when a State decides to abandon assimilationist policies and actively promote Aboriginal cultural differences, power relationships between western society and Aboriginal peoples can disadvantage the latter. For example, in Tahiti, the French State incorporated the teaching of the Tahitian language in primary school curricula. Marie Salaün, Mirose Paia and Jacques Vernaudon asked Tahitian children about their use of the French and Tahitian languages. Their conclusions are bleak: despite the efforts made at school, and in some cases by the families, the children hardly ever speak Tahitian among themselves. Even when the language has meaning for them in terms of their identity, it is only used in code, in specific circumstances.

44The study led by Tatiana Garakani among Inuit adolescents and their teachers reaches similar conclusions. The young Inuit are torn between their own language and English or French; they are not always capable of conversing with the elders, which can be a source of cultural or linguistic insecurity. However, the author insists on the young Inuit’s resilience and on their desire to reconcile the past and the future. Indeed, the young Inuit speak of their attachment to certain significant aspects of their culture, like the importance of the extended family and the upholding of traditional activities on the land, even though they are at times criticized for their lack of interest.

45The study led by Elizabeth Fast, Jennifer Nutton, Mireille de la Sablonnière-Griffin and Anna Kozlowsk frames urbanization as a form of colonialism, stemming in particular from the lack of resources allowing one to live, study and have access to healthcare within Aboriginal communities. Their study led among young Aboriginals living in Montreal shows that social and economical difficulties in their home communities are often among the factors leading to their move. With that being said, the move to Montreal can also bring on new challenges, due in particular to loneliness, to being exposed to racism, to misconceptions about the Aboriginal realities and, for those who hail from communities in which English is the second language, to needing to learn French in order to find a job in Montreal.

The Aboriginals and the youth protection system

46For many Aboriginal children, the youth protection system is the first embodiment of the authority of the State. This system is still responsible for the removal of a great number of Aboriginal children from their communities. Trying to keep these consequences to a minimum, several Aboriginal nations have set up their own youth protection agencies. However, the federal government’s financing of these agencies is inadequate. In their article, Anne Levesque, Sarah Clarke and Cindy Blackstock share their personal experience of challenging this discriminatory under-financing and analyse the evidence that was presented to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, allowing it to reach the conclusion that this constituted discrimination. Notably, the Tribunal rejected the federal government’s argument according to which comparing the services that it offers the Aboriginals to those that the province offers the Aboriginal population is irrelevant. This decision raises the possibility that the under-financing of services by the federal government has considerable negative impacts on the Aboriginal children, not only as regards youth protection, but also in the realm of education and other social services.

47The over-representation of Aboriginal children within the youth protection system is reflected in the great number of placements in non-Aboriginal foster care. In the last fifteen years, the Atikamekw nation has set up its own youth protection system. In this system, the first step is convening a family council that is tasked with elaborating practical solutions to a child’s need for protection. If an agreement is not reached the matter can be referred to an Elder council and later, as a last resort, to the Court. Anne Fournier examines the practical results of the application of this alternate plan, providing evidence of the experiment’s great success. Indeed, this new type of process managed to considerably lower the proportion of youth protection cases brought to court as well as the number of Atikamekw children placed in foster care outside the communities. Thus, this framework is of great promise for other Aboriginal communities.

48Finally, youth protection is often connected, in several ways, to traditional or customary adoption. This type of adoption is still widespread among the Inuit and the First Nations. However, the fact that it takes place without the approval of State authorities often raises concern, especially as regards its compatibility with the principle of the child’s best interest. The study by Béatrice Decaluwe, Marie-Andrée Poirier, Nancy Forget-Dubois, Joseph L. Jacobson, Sandra W. Jacobson and Gina Muckle provides significant insights as to these questions. Their longitudinal study on over 300 Inuit children, from birth to school age, highlights the fact that there are very few differences, risk factor wise, between the children adopted according to tradition and the other children. The results of this study could even contribute to dispelling the myths in which the State institutions’ wariness is rooted.

The aboriginals and the educational system.

49The educational system is not trusted among Aboriginal peoples: it has been a long-time instrument of assimilation, with the inculcation of Western society’s knowledge at the expense of Aboriginal knowledge. This critique is addressed not only to the Canadian residential school, but also to the State educational system that has been enforced on the Mapuche of Chile, studied by Daniel Quilaqueo, Héctor Torres and Segundo Quintriqueo. In the last few years, the Chilean State has been trying to set up a bicultural educational program with room given to the language, knowledge and other dimensions of Aboriginal culture. Interviews with parents highlight the many obstacles lying in the way of this ideal. The space given Mapuche culture cannot be limited to adding “language lessons”; rather, it should be integrated to the whole of the educational offer in a holistic manner.

50These findings echo those of Tatiana Garakani and Marie Salaün, Mirose Paia and Jacques Vernaudon, which we referred to earlier. Their respective studies concerned children enrolled in educational institutions that are shaped on the Western model but still reflect a willingness to adapt to Aboriginal society, notably through providing teachings in the Aboriginal language. Nevertheless, we notice that such adaptations are not always sufficient to ensure the children mastery of the language, even when they show some willingness in asserting their Aboriginal identity.

51It may be that it is in leaving the educational system per se that it becomes possible to envision actions that are really adapted to Aboriginal realities, like it appears in the road safety awareness project led by Stéphane Grenier, Laurence Hamel-Charest, Suzanne Mc Murphy and G. Brent Angell in collaboration with two Anicinape communities of North-western Quebec. Indeed, the outlines of the projects set up in each community were defined in collaboration with its members in a way that fit their need. Furthermore, the activities emphasized the role of the youths, as regards road safety, and the interaction between different generations. Thus, the project highlighted the community’s role in the children’s education.


52The articles in this issue bear witness to the momentum being gained in research on Aboriginal children and families, in particular in the Canadian, Chilean and Polynesian context. They showcase a youth that exercises resilience and agentivity. Despite the weight of colonial history, the young Aboriginals strive to shape their future through the reinterpretation of their culture on their own terms. Likewise, Aboriginal families strive to contribute to their children’s development by building on institutions and practices that are specific to Aboriginal societies. Without denying the social issues one meets in Aboriginal communities, the research that is presented here offers some hope of healing.

53This research also looks at how State institutions deal with Aboriginal childhood and youth. Despite the widespread will to adapt their services there is still a long way to go, due in part to cumbersome procedures and a lack of familiarity with Aboriginal societies. In many cases, public services and programs are still designed chiefly in response to the needs and cultural norms of Western society. Lets us hope that the development of research on Aboriginal families and children will contribute to establishing relationships that are more respectful, “nation to nation”, between the Aboriginal peoples and dominant society.

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1 Available online:

2 «Today’s youth is like an arrow with a string that is at rest: if we let go the arrow will fall to the ground. We must only take the arrow, pull it back, and then let it go: the arrow will naturally go forward. This is another way of imagining what I mean, when I talk about reconnecting with the identity and the culture» (in Guay, to be published).

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Sébastien Grammond et Christiane Guay, « Issues in research on Aboriginal children and families »Enfances Familles Générations [En ligne], 25 | 2016, mis en ligne le 04 octobre 2016, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL :

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Sébastien Grammond

Professeur titulaire, Section de droit civil, Université d’Ottawa (Canada),

Christiane Guay

Professeure agrégée, Département de travail social, Université du Québec en Outaouais (Canada),

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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