Colonialism has left a terrible legacy in many parts of the world. However, one of the least known yet most appalling legacies of the colonial era is the devastating impact European settlement wrought on the indigenous peoples of the ‘New World’. Violence, disease and dispossession marked the early relationship between the European colonizers and the original inhabitants of the land. But worse was to come. The horrific accounts of Aboriginal children being torn from their families and communities and the abuse to which they were subsequently subjected are deeply shocking. The missions and residential schools in Canada and Australia stand as one of the most potent symbols of the totally misconceived iniquity of European imperialism. And yet, whilst the residential schools may have closed, for Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Australia, colonialism cannot be consigned to the annals of history: it remains a current reality.
Aboriginal communities across Canada and Australia continue to fight for the decolonization of their communities. Most remain dispossessed of their traditional lands and resources and subjected to the sovereign will of alien governments. Aboriginal communities are often highly marginalized, with many crippled by severe social and economic problems. These difficulties are exacerbated by the intense pressure placed on indigenous cultures and their social and political systems by the assimilating forces of the non-native communities that surround them. In short, colonialism continues to penetrate into every aspect of contemporary Aboriginal lives. Aboriginal child welfare is no exception.
Continuing problems in the field of Aboriginal child welfare need to be understood within the context of both the past and present colonial experiences of Aboriginal communities. The economic, social and political consequences of the colonial legacy in Canada and Australia has created one of the most challenging environments in which to safeguard Aboriginal children from abuse. The removal of large numbers of Aboriginal children from their families and communities has intensified these difficulties by causing a serious dislocation in Aboriginal cultural norms and practices, including most significantly Aboriginal patterns of child rearing. In the now familiar phrase, the removal of Aboriginal children initiated a ‘circle of abuse’ which continues to have a profound impact on contemporary Aboriginal family life. Levels of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within Aboriginal communities are worryingly high. Non-native authorities have responded to this phenomenon with repeat patterns of removals. And so the circle has become entrenched.
The continuing disproportionate removal of Aboriginal children from their families can to some extent be convincingly explained. No matter how sympathetic one may be to the position of Aboriginal peoples, it is difficult to countenance leaving children in situations of known risk, whatever the underlying cause of those risks may be. Poverty and social dislocation are known contributing factors to high levels of child abuse and neglect. Thus, it is to be expected that until the grave social and economic problems facing Aboriginal communities are addressed, disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal children will continue to be removed into state care. The picture with respect to Aboriginal children is, however, more complex. As Kline argues, the continuing removal of Aboriginal children from their families is rooted not only in the social and economic consequences of colonialism, but in the colonial underpinnings of the child protection system itself. Aboriginal peoples have been excluded from that system, with Aboriginal cultures being misunderstood, devalued or simply ignored by the law and the people who are responsible for its application. As Kline points out, the apparently neutral façade of non-native child protection legislation has obscured the extent to which Western cultural bias is entrenched within the system and has allowed the imperialist attitudes of both non-native social workers and the judiciary towards Aboriginal families and their communities to go largely unchecked.
Unravelling the complexities of colonialism is a difficult task. There are no easy answers. In recent years, tremendous goodwill has been demonstrated by Aboriginal communities and all those involved in the governance and delivery of Aboriginal child welfare services to address the worst failings of the non-native child protection system. Concerted efforts have been made in both Canada and Australia to accommodate Aboriginal cultural perspectives within the governing legislation and to ensure that decision-makers are responsive at every stage of the process to the importance of Aboriginal culture in promoting the welfare of Aboriginal children. Aboriginal child welfare agencies exercising delegated provincial powers are now commonplace in Canada and play a crucial role in helping to sensitize provincial services to the cultural needs of Aboriginal communities. The capacity of the provincial system to provide a culturally appropriate service to Aboriginal communities is being further strengthened in Canada by the creation of Aboriginal administrative authorities such as that now in operation in Manitoba. And yet, despite the efforts of recent years, Aboriginal children continue to be removed from their families in both Canada and Australia in wholly disproportionate numbers.
The disappointing results of recent reforms to the non-native child welfare system exemplify the inherent limitations of trying to work within what is still, at its core, a culturally alien system. The very foundations of that system must be fundamentally transformed. The only long-term solution to the crisis still facing many Aboriginal families and communities is decolonization. That means self-government. It is widely accepted by academic commentators that only Aboriginal self-government over child welfare can reverse the devastating effects of the non-native child welfare system on Aboriginal communities. Problems with Aboriginal child welfare cannot, however, be looked at in isolation. The economic, social, cultural and legal obstacles to keeping Aboriginal children safe within their families and communities are inextricably linked. At the root of all these problems is colonization. Aboriginal peoples need to be freed from colonial rule and have restored to them the land and resources and legal and political authority required to rebuild their devastated communities. Self-government underpinned by a secure economic base promises to rejuvenate the political, social and cultural lives of Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal children and future generations of children to come will be the main beneficiaries of this process. It is only within the context of healthy, flourishing communities that long-term solutions to Aboriginal child welfare can be found.