Kiona Akohseràke Deer was moved between different group homes and foster care units at least 20 times before she even turned 18.
“My first group home was a Catholic group home in Verdun. I was made to go to church, if, for any reason, I couldn’t go home for a weekend,” she said. “If I refused to go to church, the staff would threaten to take my next weekend away.”
Social services were involved in Deer’s life from the age of seven. At 11, she was placed in a foster home, and from then on was passed from placement to placement. In some units, she faced mandatory strip searches and bag checks and was forced to stand in a towel that barely covered her while a staff member checked her with a metal detector, asking her to squat and cough.
On several occasions, she would find her room ripped apart for an individual search, something she said other non-Indigenous residents weren’t subject to, and one of many openly racist treatments she faced. Once, she even had her mattress cut open and searched.
“It felt like jail,” she said. “Except I wasn’t a criminal.”
Deer was in Ottawa this week with fellow Kahnawa’kehró:non Lily Ieroniawákon Deer to attend a historic federal court judgment, where a judge approved a historic $23.4-billion settlement that will compensate more than 300,000 First Nations children and their families who experienced racial discrimination as a result of chronic underfunding of on-reserve child welfare services. This includes those impacted by the narrow application of Jordan’s Principle.
Lily said that it’s been an arduous journey, with the case first being sparked by a joint human rights complaint by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) in 2007.
Since then, the government repeatedly appealed the judgment, before eventually negotiating two class-action lawsuits, ultimately agreeing to put $20 billion into long-term reform of the foster care system and $20 billion into a welfare deal compensating victims. An additional $3 billion was added to include more victims after a ruling this time last year found some were initially left out. The total amount of compensation for victims now stands at $23.4 billion, the largest settlement of its kind in Canada.
“It didn’t just impact a few people. It impacted Indigenous kids across this country for doing nothing but living on-reserve and being in care, or needing an essential service,” Lily said.
Lily was also placed into foster care as a child and was in the system from ages four to 14. During that time, she lived with foster families in Kahnawake, Kanesatake, and northwestern Ontario. The latter placement was five years long and was particularly difficult given the distance from her community.
“I felt like there was something wrong with me. What’s wrong with me? Why do I keep getting moved? Why does no one want me? And why did I have to be moved to northwestern Ontario because there were no homes in my community and my community didn’t want me?” she said.
Lily said that the failings of the child welfare system had not only an immense detrimental effect on her mental health but also on her education. Bureaucratic delays saw her unable to attend school in northwestern Ontario until May her first year there after moving in the middle of winter.
“The federal government was fighting with the provincial government about who was going to cover the cost of an elementary school in northwestern Ontario that’s significantly more expensive than Quebec,” she said. “They didn’t figure that out before I left; they couldn’t ensure a smooth transition.”
Being away from home for such a long time impacted both Lily and Kiona well into adulthood.
“I feel, in a way, very detached from a lot of things. Not only my family, but culturally as well. And I’ve taken a lot of steps in different directions to try to mend that over the years,” Kiona said. At 15, she became a young mother. She said her daughter was immediately flagged in the system, repeating cycles of trauma.
“We were separated a lot, and our relationship was shaken up because I didn’t have any resources at the time. We lost a lot of time together.”
For Lily, healing has often come from support from those who she describes as her “chosen family.”
“I don’t think I heard until this week, when I heard from someone who’s like an auntie to me, that none of this was my fault. I don’t think I ever heard that,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much that would impact me. I didn’t realize that I needed to hear those words.”
For many foster children, once they reach the age of majority they are removed from the system and given limited support.
Derek Montour, executive director of Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS) said that support after the age of 18 is just as important as support for children currently in the system, as any child removed from their home is going to have trauma to process.
“We have a post-majority care team in place. From 18-26 there’s specific support for those community members, and any community member can go to KSCS to request mental health support, even addiction support; they may want to have counselling,” he said.
“There are waitlists in place, but ideally it won’t take too long.”
Montour said that waitlists are less to do with funding and more to do with a lack of qualified applicants for counselors.
“The more that we can work together as a community, the easier it can be in the long run. At the end of it, it’s really about prevention too,” he said.
Though KSCS offers various forms of support, including group counselling and online services, Lily said she’s worried about the volume of requests the organization may receive.
“I’m really worried because I know there’s limited support at KSCS right now. Their waiting lists for mental health support are significant… With the announcement of this, there is going to be a significant number of kids in the community and their parents and they’re all going to be knocking on KSCS’s door, and I don’t know if they have the capacity to support this.” she said.
“I don’t say that to be negative, but I’m very concerned, because it’s going to be like opening a giant hole for so many people in our community.”
Both Lily and Kiona have also found a great deal of comfort in one another throughout this process. Though they’ve both known one another for some time, the settlement agreement hearing this week allowed them to connect and share their stories in an even deeper way.
“It’s one thing to be trauma-informed, but it’s another to have lived through that trauma. It gives you a very different perspective,” Kiona said.
A hearing establishing a protocol for disbursing compensation to survivors and their families is expected to take place in January.