Analysis: ‘Birth Alerts’ are colonial tools meant to dehumanize and decimate Indigenous Resistance
To truly decolonize society, the knowledge and experiences of Indigenous peoples must not only be recognized and respected but integrated and embedded into the fabric of our institutions. Listening and understanding is not nearly enough. Action is required at the institutional level. The racist laws and protocols targeting Indigenous peoples and their culture must be dismantled and replaced at once with truly collaborative ones that respect the spirit of treaties and agreements such as the Two Row Wampum. At home, at school, at work, in private and public offices, in our hospitals and our shelters, the laws must change so that individuals’ mentality may follow.
This is what the commissioners for the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls stressed during a discussion held at the University of Saskatchewan and live-streamed out of the University of Regina’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy on June 14th. We as settlers must find how to work with indigenous people – not tokenize their knowledge and rush to be their ‘saviours,’ the three-member panel suggested.
“We stand for decolonization and empowerment,” said Commissioner Qajaq Robinson, who, although raised in Nunavut and a fluent Inuktitut speaker, is not actually Inuk.
“Not doing to or for, but doing with. That’s what we stand for, because that’s what the families told us.”
To that end, the commissioners stressed the importance of reading the MMIWG Final Report as a way to learn the raw facts rather than resort to the rumour-and misinformation-mill that is social media and some shallow mainstream journalism. From an institutional perspective, the hope is to trigger a “re-evaluation of everything that happens – from curricula to safety of students on campus to even hiring,” as Chief Commissioner Marion Bullard – the first Indigenous woman appointed provincial judge in British Columbia in 1994 – said.
One of their leading “calls of justice” was to stop separating Indigenous children from their mothers through so-called “birth alerts” – the practice of tipping off children’s social services and police when women considered “high-risk” give birth. Ostensibly, this means that it’s done only in “extreme circumstances” out of concern for the safety of both mother and child, as Saskatchewan Social Services Minister Paul Merriman claims. But the reality is that across Canada, hospital staff have routinely taken it upon themselves to call children social service agencies and police departments, often on trumped up accusations of being drunk, drugged or unfit to care for the child.
In a callous flexing of muscles, the ruling Saskatchewan Party willfully violated that call to action when mere days later it announced it would continue the abhorrent, dehumanizing, and traumatizing practice.
Of course, it’s not just Saskatchewan that does it. And it’s not new.
In fact, it’s a re-imagined version of the 60’s Scoop, the colonial practice wherein the government ripped Indigenous children away from their families and adopted them out to white foster parents in an attempt to kill their culture by severing all familial and community ties. But why wait until they are older to be separated? Resorting even to lying, racist hospital staff have become quasi-human traffickers in their dutifully executed colonial roles. For Neecha Dupuis of the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen #258 in Northern Ontario, it was the medicinal cannabis she at one time consumed to manage pain caused by Degenerative Disk Disease, that they tried using against her. “Children’s Aid Society will be sitting at the door and they will take your baby,” she remembers being told at the Ottawa General Hospital.
The baby, of course, was clean. But the damage had been done.
“It just put extreme stress on me,” said Dupuis, who gave birth to her healthy baby boy Alex on July 23, 2011. “I knew there was nothing wrong with the baby, but it was just the anxiety, the stress of those final seconds...That whole birth was stressful. They had no right to threaten me or threaten to take my baby. As an Indigenous woman, I did not feel safe and my baby didn’t feel safe.”
With the help of a “circle of care” of friends and family who rushed to her aid -- including buying baby supplies at the gift shop to replace the contents of the baby bag she had taken but which had mysteriously gone missing -- she was able to leave the hospital with her newborn.
But not everyone is as lucky, for the system isn’t set up to let you go.
Just another industry
On January 11, two uniformed police officers walked into the hospital room where an Indigenous woman gently held and caressed her newborn and proceeded to apprehend the baby.
“This is unfortunate, I understand, but child family services has the power here to apprehend the baby,” one of the cops says. “We’re going to act. We’re going to physically remove the baby.”
“I’m going to pray for you,” the man recording the video can be heard saying.
The video, which has been viewed more than 40,000 times, then shows one of the two cops holding a car seat as the other places the baby in it while his mother softly whimpers and a relative wails in desperation.
The two cops then leave with the newborn.
Between 2015 and 2018, the Globe and Mail reports, Saskatchewan’s Social Service Ministry received 588 alerts, of which 153 resulted in apprehended babies. In Manitoba, the numbers are even higher, with 558 alerts from 2017-2018 alone. That largely contributes to the fact that more than 90 percent of kids in care in that province are Indigenous. Indeed, according to Cora Morgan, a family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs cited in that report, on average, a newborn is apprehended every single day.
Merriman claims that reunification is “always” the end goal. According to him, more than 60 percent of babies are placed with extended family members while staff works with the parents, though he did not specify what that “work” entailed.
Yet, according to Morgan, reunification is often next to impossible, because apprehensions can trigger prohibitively expensive court processes that require the woman or her family to cover court costs. While some of Dupuis’ friends have gotten their kids back through a lot of struggle, many others, after jumping through “so many hoops,” have succumbed to the force of the system and remain separated. “For us mothers it’s really hard to find good lawyers to defend our stories,” she said, acknowledging that she was fortunate to have had a close group of family and friends with her – some of whom included lawyers.
“But for a lot of our people, they don’t have that choice. The government just takes our babies and they adopt them out. And every time...you get to the end of the race to get your babies back, they just refuse to give them back. They’ll take you to court for another three months...It’s unbelievable. It’s just an industry to them.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents the 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, has also questioned the 60 per cent figure put forth by Merriman as well as the motives behind such barbaric practices.
“Rather than help the mother and child as a unit they’re saying, ‘Well, you know, we’re working on prevention but we’ll take the baby away. Mom, we hope you get better and do well,’” Chief Morley Watson told the Globe and Mail.
These critiques are all the more prescient when considering the Saskatchewan government’s expressed paternalistic and patronizing concern over Indigenous groups being included in a conversation about Indigenous rights. This past April, for instance, Merriman publicly bemoaned that “unfortunately” the federal Minister of Indigenous Services Seamus O’Regan had the audacity to include Indigenous groups in an earlier meeting to discuss Bill C-92, which is aimed at reducing the over-representation of Indigenous children in foster care. It “was a little bit troublesome,” Merriman, who preferred exclusively settler government to settler government conversations, is quoted saying in a Globe and Mail article. “It created a little bit of awkwardness.”
Dupuis, a survivor of the 60’s Scoop, sees clearly through the façade and bluntly frames it as a cut-and-dry case of homegrown Canadian colonization which has tried to exterminate Indigenous peoples and resistance since first contact.“I don’t think their experiment ended that day they adopted us out,” she says. “I think they kept tabs on us.”
The targeting of Indigenous women giving birth is, of course, part of the systemic attempt of “taking the Indian out of the child” by severing their familial connections and thus isolating them from land, traditional knowledge and culture. This, the MMIWG Report clearly states, is nothing other than genocide. It thus outlines multiple “Calls for Justice” which include the “immediate end to the practice of targeting and apprehending infants...from Indigenous mothers.” According to the document, Canada “has a legal obligation to fully implement these Calls for Justice.”
“The colonization and deaths of Indigenous women and girls, the marginalization, the deliberate attempt through law and policy to clear the land of Indians over years cannot be characterized as a misunderstanding, a mistake or a misguided and momentary lapse in public policy,” chief commissioner Bullard said at the June 14 U of S event. “This has been 500 years in the making. (Genocide) is the right term. No other term will do.”
Commissioner Robinson, whose father had been part of imposing a Western education system in the north, agreed with Bullard, saying it was time for people like herself to face their “guilt” and “shame” and to call a spade a spade.
“Conversations might get heated, but they’re conversations that are needed,” she said during the talk. “But I think the ultimate value is the freeing effect that calling things what they are has on all of us as a society... I have guilts, I have shames, I have very uncomfortable feelings. But I am more uncomfortable and ashamed of continuing to prop my privilege up on the lives of indigenous women and girls.”
While it’s important to criticize and reject the colonial governments and their tactics, it’s equally as important to highlight the reasons why they target Indigenous Peoples the way they do. Residential schools, the ‘60s scoop, mass incarceration – all of these and more tactics have been deployed not only as cultural warfare but, in a way, to control and neutralize dissidence. Simply put, resistance is not good for colonial business.
As a survivor of the 60’s scoop, Dupuis knows she represents a lot of danger to their little “experiment.” She and all other survivors of such draconian experiments are “living proof” that the system can be broken, that the house doesn’t always win. “When they took us off the land they expected to submit and colonize us and make us one of them,” she said. “But they failed... I broke the system and I broke their cycle (and) my circle is stronger, because I broke their cycle.”
That’s why Dupuis suspects the CAS had opened a file on her – to keep “tabs” on her as she grew up in order to find out whether they’d been successful in snuffing the culture and resistance out of her. There certainly had never been any accusations of drug use or violence against her to use as a pretext, she says. Thus, unable to get to her and the other survivors, colonial governments, like the mafia, are now going after the next generations.
Without kids, Dupuis says, she fought alongside other grassroots activists for nearly 20 years. The usual attacks on her credibility and the attempts to intimidate friends and family, while troublesome, were always manageable. “They have nothing to come at you with,” she said.
But a child changes everything.
“It was a new form of attack on me because they were coming after my baby...so they can make me lose focus,” says Dupuis. “I’d be so busy jumping through their hoops, and that would be one more activist gone. Because...when they take your baby that’s entirely different – you fight right there and then.”
Seeds of Resistance
Birth Alerts give a new meaning to that old indoctrination maxim, “get ‘em while they’re young.” Having seen their failure in trying to exterminate Indigenous peoples, colonial governments have turned to snuffing out potential leaders and activists by adopting them out to white families in the hopes their identities are so scrambled that they forget their aspirations to freedom, equality and true reconciliation.
But that, too, is failing, as more and more Indigenous peoples who’ve survived the onslaught of colonial attacks are returning to their lands and traditions, both physically and metaphorically. And the ranks swell.
As Dupuis says, “If you’re a 60s Scoop survivor and are reading this, you need to go back home, because...you probably have land waiting for you (which) the government will try to take from you.”
Their plan was always to empty the land of its original inhabitants either through bullet or verse. The return of a survivor to her land, as well as ensuring that mothers remain with their newborns, is not only symbolically significant but strategically and tactically devastating to colonial governments, for in those newborns, the seeds of resistance are sowed.
“Right now (Alex) is seeing me, a ‘60s Scoop mother return back to her community and help the people that she couldn’t at one time,” Dupuis concluded. “And he’s watching me do that so that when his time comes to stand up and do it himself, he’ll have the knowledge, he’ll have the community and the traditions to do it with respect for the land, the water and the spirit of the people.”