After years of delay, inquiry into treatment of Innu children in care begins with hearings
Nearly six years after it was announced, the investigation into the treatment and experiences of Innu children in Newfoundland and Labrador’s child protection system will begin Monday with hearings in Sheshatshiu.
The inquiry, led by retired Inuk Provincial Court Judge James Igloliorte, will examine the over-representation of Innu in Newfoundland and Labrador’s child protection system, examine systemic issues and make recommendations for changes.
Innu with experience in the child care system will testify as a witness. The inquest will also investigate the deaths of six Innu children, adolescents and young adults who were experienced in foster care or custody.
Researchers have previously held community meetings in Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, two Innu communities in Labrador.
“People are excited for this to start and they see it as an essential part of the journey towards Innu jurisdiction and Innu child protection,” said Caitlin Urquhart, one of the attorneys on the inquiry.
According to Statistics Canada, as of 2021, about a third of the children in Newfoundland and Labrador’s foster system were Indigenous, even though Indigenous people made up only about nine percent of the province’s total population.
For years, the Innu-Nation has pushed to keep children safe in their home communities with treatment that focuses on their culture and their roots.
Nathan Penashue, an Innu Nation board member who has had his own experience with the province’s child care system, is serving as the community liaison for the investigation.
“I’m very fortunate to be a part of that and also to be working with the community and, you know, bringing stories and listening to the families that have been through this,” he said.
Innu elders shall testify
The investigation begins Monday in Sheshatshiu with an opening prayer and statements from the commissioners. Alongside Igloliorte, sociologist Mike Divine and former Innu Nation chief Anastasia Qupee also serve as commissioners.
The first two weeks of the hearings are intended to examine Innu history and include testimonies from elders.
According to the tentative schedule, the investigation will hold private and community truth-sharing meetings in March, April and July and begin investigations in June.
Urquhart said a healing ministry team will support parishioners throughout the process. The investigation also includes healing, honoring and memorial ceremonies.
People can share their experiences publicly or privately through testimonies, art, stories, music, and other means.
The provincial government has allocated US$4 million for the investigation.
A long delay
Qupee and Simeon Tshakapesh, former deputy grand chief of the Innu nation, conducted calls to examine Innu children in care.
“People really felt that their experiences needed to be heard in a public forum and that everyone needed to know what was happening,” Urquhart said.
Tshakapesh’s 16-year-old son, Thunderheart Napeu Tsakapesh, committed suicide in 2017. Thunderheart had spent time at a youth treatment center in Grand Falls-Windsor and a rehab center in Regina – both far from home.
“My son came into the care of what was then the Dutch government’s Children, Youth and Family Services two years ago and it ended up taking his own life,” Tshakapesh said in July 2017.
Later that month, Premier Dwight Ball announced the investigation into Innu’s experiences in foster care, saying it would begin later in the fall. But the investigation has been repeatedly delayed, to the growing frustration of Innu leaders and the province’s child and youth advocate.
In November 2020, Premier Andrew Furey said the inquiry was a top priority.
“I recognize that the timeline is unacceptable and we need to move forward with it,” he said.
The provincial government appointed officers in 2021 and eventually launched the investigation in April 2022.
The hearings should last until August, and a final report should be available by the end of October.
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