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Effects of residential school system can be seen today: B.C.'s youth advocate

Last Updated Jun 10, 2021 at 1:00 pm PDT

(Courtesy: B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth)

Residential school system affected Skye, who died of overdose on her 17th birthday, says B.C. children's representative

Skye was taken from her family at age of 5, endured three failed adoption efforts, was assigned 18 social workers

Jennifer Charlesworth makes three recommendations around instilling a sense of belonging

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A report examining the tragic overdose death of an Indigenous girl on her 17th birthday nearly four years ago is highlighting the incredible adversity Indigenous children still face to this day.

In her 118-page report, the Representative for Children and Youth in B.C. looks at the life of Skye, an “outgoing and vivacious” girl with “a zest for life” and “an infectious laugh.”

“The reality is that the residential school system, the Sixties Scoop that affected Skye’s mom, the Millennium Scoop that affected Skye, and many other things that are going on are all grounded in colonization and racism and a sense of superiority or supremacy,” said child representative Jennifer Charlesworth.

The report, called Skye’s Legacy: A Focus on Belonging was released Thursday. It details how Skye was taken from her family at the age of five. She endured three failed adoption efforts, moved 15 times in 12 years, and was assigned 18 different social workers throughout her life.

“Skye was much loved,” Charlesworth said. “There were people who really cared about her and wanted the best for her. There were times that she was doing really well. Unfortunately, because of the decisions that were being made, some of those opportunities were fractured. Those relationships were fractured.”

Skye at age 5. (Courtesy: B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth)

In her report, Charlesworth says Skye’s mother reached out several times to her daughter’s social workers, asking to visit with her daughter. Even though Skye wanted to see her mom too, visits were “not supported” by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

“We often wonder with situations like this, what would have happened if we’d supported mom more successfully to at least have a connection with her child on an ongoing basis, even if she couldn’t full-time parent? That was taken from both of them,” she said.

In her report, she says Skye struggled with anger rooted in the trauma she experienced as a child.

“Skye always seemed like she was a hundred years child, even as a little girl. She had a very funny, playful side to her. But she just always seemed like she’d lived a really hard life … she just seemed worn down, like kind of old before her years,” the report quotes a support service provider.

She died on Aug. 11, 2017 — her 17th birthday — of what was determined to be an accidental overdose.

“The line between the decisions that were made around residential school and contemporary experience for Indigenous people is very, very clear. It’s not separate. Residential schools created historical trauma that lives on in the families and communities,” Charlesworth said.

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The report was led by Indigenous members of Charlesworth’s team. It recommends changes to the child welfare system to ensure Indigenous children can maintain connections with their heritage, and be provided with supports to find a sense of belonging.

“We’re encouraging the Ministry of Children and Families to take a look at their practices, take a look at their policies and guidelines, and also do some significant investments in cultural connection and belonging,” she said.

B.C.’s Minister of Children and Family Development says she agrees with Charlesworth that the province “can and must do more” to make sure children stay connected to their families and culture.

“The child welfare system is overly involved in the lives of Indigenous children and families. This dates back to residential schools, is part of the damaging colonial legacy that continues to this day – and it needs to stop,” Minister Mitzi Dean said, adding the report is especially heart-breaking, given the recent discovery of children’s remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“We share in the grief expressed throughout B.C., Canada and the world for the trauma and harms done to so many children, families and communities at the Kamloops residential school and all residential schools,” Dean said, adding “We remain steadfast in our goal of keeping Indigenous children and youth out of care, safely with their families, and connected to their culture and communities.”

With files from Monika Gul