by Katie Bickell
Some readers of our latest issue (Vol. 3, No. 1) may not have recognized the impoverished, pregnant protagonist of Katie Bickell’s story “To Do:” as an indigenous teenager in Canada. Though recent steps have been taken by the Canadian government to move toward reconciliation with First Nations communities, the social, emotional, financial, and physical effects of continuous, institutionalized racism are still acutely suffered by many Aboriginal peoples. Despite First Nations heritage making up only 4.3% of Canada’s total population, almost half (48.1%) of Canada’s foster children are Aboriginal. Indigenous people are also vastly over-represented in populations affected by poverty, homelessness, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, incarceration, murder, and suicide. Many accredit these over-representations to the cyclical nature of institutionalized care originating with mandatory residential schooling and The Sixties Scoop, programs that removed generations of Aboriginal children from the spiritual, emotional, and social guidance of their parents and set the stage for future epidemics of Aboriginal child apprehension. Here, Katie offers her experiences with Canada’s child welfare system and the perspectives that formed her character, Amy.
I’m seven when my father tells us about a real-life princess, a little girl with hair like burnt gold and a smile that could light up heaven. Dad tells the best stories. Though I don’t notice it, my Canadian friends tell me they enjoy his thick, north English accent. It adds to the magic.
The real-life princess was lonelier than we could ever imagine, lonelier at only four years old than we would be in our entire lives. The little girl sat on the floor of her foster parents’ bedroom while my father, then a glazer, replaced a bug screen. She talked with the too-fast pace of a child silenced for too long, wishing aloud that she, too, could open a window. Summer nights were so hot she couldn’t sleep. And if her window were open, birds could wake her in the morning.
“Imagine a little girl wanting such a thing,” my father considers. “You girls wouldn’t even think to want something like that.”
He whispers to keep his voice from breaking.
“Her life will be harder than yours in ways you won’t ever understand.”
“Always, always, be kind.”
He installed her screen free of charge.
At eleven years old friendships are easy. We live in Slave Lake, Alberta, and I learn about First Nations and Metis culture at my Catholic school. Many of my friends are Cree and their parents are hockey coaches, social workers, stay at home moms, and businessmen who sponsor pizza parties for our classroom on Fridays. We have a famous substitute teacher who played a role on the 1990s Canadian TV show, North of 60. Sometimes Mr. Isadore wears traditional regalia and round dances at school-wide assemblies. Boys in our class swear in Cree and everyone laughs because they’ve taught us what the words mean, but the white teachers don’t know.
Sometimes my friends take me to Powwows and there are drums and loud song. I envy the female jingle dancers’ colorful dresses and soft moccasins, the music made by shells on their dresses and the way their feet bounce against grass. More so, I envy my friends for the many voices that call out and the many arms that pull them close. I envy the many mother/kokum/aunty hands that so carefully stitched the dresses and braided the hair and fried the bannock that accompanies moose stew served at the potlatch. How can one family be so big? There is so much love.
I am too young to know what the elders have survived. I am too young to know children are missing. Grade six social studies teach us that First Nations people died of European germs. Our school doesn’t tell us about the children abducted by our first government, not really. We certainly don’t talk about evil done by priests. It will be thirteen years before Pope Benedict offers his sympathies to residential school survivors. It will be seventeen years before I hear the term cultural genocide and Canada in the same sentence. It’s 1996, and I don’t know the last residential school has yet to close.
I’m a “Big Sister,” employed on a casual basis by social services. My job is to hang out with my “Little Sister” Mary: to take her to movies, bake cookies, and ride bikes to 7Eleven for slurpees. Mary is twelve and a foster kid. She was born on a nearby reservation but hasn’t seen her family in years. When Mary is happy she grabs my hand and doesn’t let go. When Mary cries it breaks my heart. Sometimes she can’t get out of bed so I sit on the floor and stroke her hair and wipe away tears. I have no mental health training, no training at all. I can only be a friend to this little girl and I don’t think that’s enough right now.
I stop working with Mary when she is moved to a different foster home. Mary’s foster mother found missing lingerie under Mary’s bed and decided it was best she leave. Sick in the head, the woman tells me. Mary didn’t steal your underwear to creep on you, I don’t say. At sixteen, I’ve recently experienced my own backseat fumbling. Mary stole it for a boy.
After five years gone, Mary calls my parents’ home and happens to catch me there. At twenty-one, I’m grappling with the reality of my own unplanned pregnancy. Mary has called to announce hers. She tells me about all the things she will buy for her child and what she will name it if it’s a girl. I don’t know what to say. They’ll never let her keep the baby.
Pam is my best friend and she’s way cooler than me. She’s a talented figure skater and ballerina and I am thick-lensed bookworm who writes poems the junior high boys publicly recite to humiliate me. Pam will grow up to become a RCMP member in a First Nations Policing Unit and I’ll help her write her college applications, but we don’t know that yet. When Pam moves to the Vancouver Island she’ll become part of the Qualicum First Nations Singing Coho canoe family and will shave her head for Cops for Cancer and the distance will only make our friendship dearer. Pam’s mom is the hardest working volunteer in our town and her forestry firefighter dad is known for his tendency to nickname all the people of the world. I call Pam’s house to see if she can sleep over, but she’s out.
“Can’t talk to ya now,” her dad shouts through the wire. “She’s building a canoe!”
It might be a joke but I’m not sure. “A canoe?”
“Yah. Collectin’ birch bark in the bush.”
I’m still thinking up jokes when she returns my call, but Pam doesn’t laugh so I shut up. Pam is strong and confident and I wish I were more like her.
“Am I good at this?”
I don’t know how to answer. I’m twenty and god knows how I qualify as a resource worker for high-risk families. The only training I’ve received is in childhood literacy and I’m pretty sure I was just hired because I’m a nice person. Liz is only two years older than me and I can’t imagine trying to keep a kid alive all by myself.
“Of course you are! Look at him.” The baby stretches his arms up to nurse. “Adam adores you. That’s all that matters.”
“I wasn’t really, like, ready, you know?”
Liz and Adam sit in my office for the rest of the afternoon. Adam’s father is twenty years older and has other women. Their rental is a mess because all Liz does is sit on the floor and play with the baby. Which doesn’t seem so bad. She keeps the play area clean and blocked off with boxes so he can’t get at the garbage that litters the rest of the home. Liz was a foster kid before she aged out of the system. She hates her bio mom and she loves her son. Adam is all she has. But soon, he’ll start walking. Soon, he’ll push over the boxes. Soon, he’ll need sanitized sippy cups and healthy, solid food. I don’t know if they’ll let her keep him and I don’t know how to help.
We hear the twin’s screams from the parking lot. It’s always the same. Jenna and Jarrett are only thirteen months old, but they’ve been through three foster homes and three attempts in their biological mother’s care. The daycare is the only consistency in their lives but they hate it. Today Jenna and Jarrett’s mother drops them off. Their caseworker, Michelle, tells us the twins are back with their mom.
The week before, Jaden was returned to her mother. Jaden was as thin as a sparrow with wild black hair. She came from the back lakes and spoke Cree and needed a lot of quiet. The daycare girls and I refer to Jaden’s foster mom’s house as a foster farm. Kids are Karen’s sole source of income and she renovated her place to keep them downstairs while the “real family” lives on the upper floor. Jaden liked to crawl onto my lap and wrap her arms tight around her legs so she formed a ball. Sometimes we’d leave the four-year-old room to my assistants and she and I would sit on the back porch of the playground and listen to the rain fall all around us. I was told not to talk to foster kids about their families, but she drew her mom and dad and the baby in the sand and I watched and listened anyway.
Jenna and Jarrett’s mother wears sunglasses indoors and has a hard time holding both babies at once. When she and Michelle leave, I’m transferred to the baby room because it’s over ratio and my elderly assistants have an easier time with the older kids than the younger.
“Don’t pick that one up,” a staff member points at Jenna. “She’ll never let you put her down.”
But she’s so upset. I press her little head against my breast and immediately she breaks my skin with the only four teeth she has. I hold her anyway and I hold her everyday, until others complain that I’m leaving the rest of the work up to them, until she stops screaming at drop off, until even her brother stops staring at walls and dares to raise his arms up to me, too. Playing this little piggy, I discover Jenna’s big toe is badly infected. Someone tells me she’s never had shoes, not even when in foster care. I go the pharmacy on my lunch break and, three times a day for a week, I apply ointment. I ignore the dirty looks sent my way for focusing my attention on only two when there are so many in the crowded, noisy room.
On the evening I lock up the center, Jenna and Jarrett’s mother does not come. We wait. It’s after hours; all children and staff are home but us. Their mother doesn’t answer the phone. I wait an extra hour and then call Michelle. She can’t reach mom either.
Michelle shows up tired with a long list of phone calls to make. The twins and I sit until shadows stretch over the parking lot outside the window. I feed the kids crackers from the kitchen, the only food not locked up. They are tired, almost inconsolable. There’s nowhere, Michelle says. Her voice shakes. “All our homes are full.”
I will take them.
No. My parents will take them.
I’m only eighteen; I still live at home. But my mom is a nurse and my dad is a community peace officer and Michelle knows they’re good people. It’ll be fine, I tell Michelle. I go in another room to call mom, and I beg.
A night turns into a week turns into a month turns into a year.
People tell my parents how lucky the twins are to have them, but my parents correct them —we are the lucky ones. This means: don’t say that crap in front of our kids.
My teenage sister and kid brother and I try to be as generous with babysitting as our young egos allow. Jenna has shoes. She never wants to take them off and spends most of her day trying to keep Jarrett’s on, too. Jarrett raises both his arms and his eyes when he wants up, now. He presses his forehead against my his father’s, he sleeps with my his mother. At three years old our mother ties red Metis sashes around their waists and takes them to events at the local Native Friendship Center. At five years old they become aunty and uncle to my firstborn. Today, at twelve, they are loud and happy. Jenna is artistic and independent and sensitive, with a gift for tall tales and keen sense of social justice. Our parents remark how similar we sisters are.
I’m uncomfortable writing in another’s skin. It wasn’t my intention to appropriate, but how could I whitewash an impoverished, pregnant, teenage foster-care runaway living in the parking lot of West Edmonton Mall into a statistical anomaly when, in reality, Amy would most likely be native?
I email “To Do:” to Jamie Linington, the Executive Director of the Slave Lake Native Friendship Center. Is this offensive? Can I tell this story?
“I did not find the story to misappropriate any of the cultural aspects of Aboriginal peoples,” Jamie writes back. “Rather, an understanding of underlying issues, societal impacts and trends that many people don’t understand. Not everyone can convey an adequate message through imagery and productions. Stories are a tool to effect change and create awareness. Your story provides a glimpse of struggles faced by the most impoverished and underprivileged demographic in Canada. People often ask why, wonder, question the integrity and will of (Aboriginal) people. If they only knew.”
And yet there are many talented Aboriginal storytellers who can and do tell these stories. Am I just taking up space on the platform?
I turn to Carla Ulrich, a Metis Filmmaker based in the Northwest Territories, a woman who facilitates film and photography workshops for Indigenous youth when not shooting her own projects.
“Hey Carla,” I write, “Wanna talk race with this white girl?” I email her the story.
“While it’s not my personal experience,” she tells me, “I do know girls who have went through these things. I see nothing wrong with the story. It’s respectful and it’s real. It’s beautiful.”
“But is it okay that I wrote it? More appropriate voices could claim this story, could publish on these issues.”
“I think it’s okay,” Carla says, carefully. “But not everyone would feel the same way…some would say, ‘get out of the way.’”
“But,” she continues, “I believe there’s room for many voices, many storytellers. You just have to ask yourself, why did you write it?”
So I think.
I wrote “To Do:” not for those who know girls like Amy, but for those who don’t. I wrote to shine a light on broken systems, to show how the most terrible choices can be made with the very best intentions, to show how systematically disenfranchised foster children are, and how invisible a person can be.
And then I wrote this post to show the strength and despair I’ve witnessed through my privileged eyes. I wrote to push steps towards Truth and Reconciliation. To promote funding for the kinds of programs Ms. Linington researches and develops; programs aimed to reduce poverty, abuse, and homelessness, and to promote intact families; programs that, if successful, would take a significant financial burden off other social systems such as healthcare, child services, policing, and education. To encourage those hiring program facilitators merely on emphatic ability to hire from the communities affected, to hire those who can more readily relate to the demographic of their clientele. To post job opportunities for these roles not only online and in newspapers, but in places frequented by lower income populations: emergency rooms, laundry mats, thrift stores. To make clear in job descriptions that training will be provided, and then to actually deliver adequate training to promote quantifiable assistance in their service. To encourage schools to teach the fallouts from colonization and residential schools are not part of our ancient history, but Canada’s modern day reality and responsibility. To encourage governments to hold foster homes to higher standards and to deliver more training to foster parents—of whom most are loving and generous, but of whom some are opportunistic—on childhood mental health, empathy and compassion, sexual health, and First Nations culture and history. To allow talented social workers like Michelle to uphold these standards by hiring more like her, to prevent placing the weight of an entire community on one or two pairs of shoulders, so that someday her job is obsolete. To make reproductive options more readily available, to offer more than cold judgment when the loneliest girls in the world choose affection from the wrong men instead of a lack affection whatsoever.
To end our institutionalized cycle of parentless children and childless parents.
To promote empathy, so that we all, like Amy, may be brave, be kind.
 For more than a century, Canada attempted to assimilate Aboriginal youth into mainstream Canadian culture through a series of government and church-backed residential institutions, which ran from 1876 to 1996. The abuses in these schools eventually led to formal apologies by the government and the Catholic Church. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/06/canada-dark-of-history-residential-schools
The image for this post is from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police document “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women: A National Operational Overview,” published in 2014. The report can be downloaded in pdf format here: http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/pubs/mmaw-faapd-eng.pdf