The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM) has suspended its partnership with an advisory committee involved in improving the city’s youth protection services for Indigenous children after continued inaction to address systemic racism at Batshaw Youth and Family Centre.
Providing youth protection services for English-speaking Montrealers and a large segment of Inuit children flown in from Nunavik, critics say Batshaw has failed to act on recommendations made in numerous reports and public inquiries.
The NWSM still hasn’t received a response to a letter sent in August to the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, the regional health authority that oversees Batshaw, which explained that systemic racism directed at Indigenous children and their families remains unaddressed.
“After a while, you keep running into a wall, so we just pulled out,” said NWSM executive director Nakuset. “We kept going to the table with the higher-ups and everything we said seemed to go into a void.”
Nakuset shared various instances of racist attitudes exhibited by Batshaw social workers. When an Inuk woman didn’t understand the language on one occasion, a social worker suggested, “Maybe she just drank too much alcohol and she’s braindead.” Another Indigenous woman who had smudged before her supervised visit was accused of smoking pot.
Earlier this year, an investigation by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission found that Inuit children at the institution do not receive an adequate education and are sometimes discouraged from speaking Inuktitut. Sources involved with the agency say that investigations resulted in little change in how Indigenous families and children are treated.
“A month ago, a mother was talking to her child in Inuktitut and the social worker told her not to do that,” Nakuset told the Nation. “We brought it up to the head of youth protection, but the [allegations] don’t show up in the meeting minutes. There’s no proof these conversations even happened.”
While more than half the children in Canada’s foster-care systems are Indigenous, the numbers of Indigenous children at Batshaw are not accurately tracked. Inuit youth have reported significant isolation, with no one able to converse in their language. Although individual staff members have expressed empathy and a desire to understand northern realities, reports document a lack of relevant cultural training.
Many Inuit children are deprived of schooling in one of their two languages, Inuktitut or English, according to one report on Batshaw. In the report, a teenager noted that, “Part of the reason I am in placement is that I wasn’t attending school. So, they send me here, and I am not allowed to go to school.” Instead, he receives tutoring.
The Cree Health Board stated that Batshaw remains an important training partner, helping them deal with occasional situations to protect Cree youth at risk in Montreal before they’re sent back to youth protection services in Eeyou Istchee as quickly as possible.
While the NWSM has proposed programs and provided tools like a cultural manual for non-Indigenous foster parents over the past decade, Batshaw has repeatedly resisted attempts for more meaningful collaboration. A request to form a clinical integration group composed of community organizations, experts and Batshaw representatives was denied in 2019.
The NWSM remains committed to helping Indigenous children at Batshaw, including an agreement that refers pregnant women and new mothers to the shelter’s services. However, Nakuset said that social workers sometimes arbitrarily prevent these referrals – she said only one of their staff is Indigenous.
“Now they’re saying, ‘Please send us Indigenous people,’ because they know they can’t get anyone Indigenous there,” said Nakuset. “I knew a Mi’kmaq girl named Gina who worked there for three months and cried every single day. She was so mistreated as a staff member. The other guy I know burned out – they didn’t even let him on any Indigenous files.”
This lack of Indigenous representation could be addressed in future legal action against the CIUSSS. Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), explained that Quebec public services are mandated to implement employment equity for Indigenous peoples and other visible minorities.
“If there is systemic discrimination documented and failure to address those barriers, then certainly Batshaw could find itself in court,” Niemi told the Nation. “We’ll be asking for employment equity data and the measures taken to correct this serious underrepresentation. Ultimately, someone in management has to be accountable.”
A potential lawsuit would require the filing of civil rights complaints, but one challenge could be to overcome distrust in the justice system among Indigenous people. CRARR has faced similar issues in previous cases involving racial profiling of the Black community by police.
“The hardest part was convincing parents of Black youth that they should no longer accept to be silent,” shared Niemi. “We have to work on that distrust and show that the system can be accessible and can work for Indigenous people. Policies have to be adopted; procedures have to be improved – that’s how we can bring about change.”
The regional health authority called the partnership’s end “regrettable” and stated they are currently developing an action plan to implement recommendations from the Viens and Laurent commissions.
After Nakuset urged the Quebec government to demand accountability from Batshaw on implementing these recommendations, Health and Social Services Minister Lionel Carmant said they had previously intervened on this issue. “If the situation persists, we will do what we have to in order to correct it,” said Carmant.
Nakuset is hopeful the situation will improve when the NWSM opens its second-stage housing project in 12 to 14 months. It will include a Dr Julien Foundation for social pediatrics, open for anyone in the city having issues with youth protection.
Meanwhile, Quebec is the only province to contest Bill C-92, a federal law transferring control of Indigenous youth protection from the provinces to Indigenous communities. Although some First Nations in the province have launched their own youth protection services following years of negotiations, others have been significantly delayed by the court battle.