By Janice Robinson, Halton Children’s Aid Society executive director
My journey of Truth is an attempt to reconcile what I thought was the truth about a place I lived in when I was young, with what I later learned when Indigenous Peoples, events, communities, and most especially children entered my life.
I am humbled to share my reckoning of what I thought was Truth, and to plot my journey backward, recasting memories, overlaying them with new knowledge, and reforming them with Truth. I am humbled to declare how my new way of seeing old memories, inspires my leadership in a child welfare agency today.
My First Learnings about Indigenous Peoples
I moved to Brantford, Ontario when I was 5 years old. Brantford is named after Chief Joseph Brant, who I was taught, forded the Grand River to claim the territory granted to him by the British government in payment for his bravery in the American Revolution. There is a statue of him in the town square in Brantford that I looked at many times as a child.
I was taught by my parents that the town of Brantford is on land that was owned by the Six Nations Indigenous Peoples, and that we took it from them. The Six Nations people lived on a reserve. My home was on a street, that if followed south would lead eventually to the Six Nations reserve and the town on that reserve, Ohsweken. I was taught that we weren’t allowed to go there.
I also lived about a fifteen-minute walk from an abandoned school on large grounds; an empty and imposing building where kids used to go to school. I did not know who the children were or why they stopped going there.
Finally, I was taught that a small, white church on a road near my house called the Mohawk Chapel was built by Indigenous Peoples, but they didn’t go to that church anymore. Once, the Queen went there and there was a plaque outside the church commemorating that event.
This is the sum of what I knew about my community and its Indigenous roots until I was 13 years old. In high school I took Canadian and American history but learned very, very little about the original peoples of North America. We mostly learned about the ‘settlers’ and ‘explorers’ who came from far and claimed this land.
What I did learn was that every day, buses would arrive carrying kids from the Six Nations reserve to our high school. The bus arrived on time in the mornings but picked up Six Nations children early every day, so they had to line up at 2:30 pm in the hallway while school was still in session. Everyone knew which kids lived on the reserve. There was no school on Six Nations and ours was the closest high school. Those kids stayed together. Some joined team sports but couldn’t go to tournaments because of the bus schedule.
My Indigenous Understanding Began Later in Life
I share this to tell you that I live in a community that is rich in Indigenous history, culture, contribution, and foundation. I never appreciated any of those things until well after I graduated from university and went to work at the Children’s Aid Society of Brant. There I met Indigenous social workers and community leaders from both the Six Nations and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations. I received an education from each of them, not just through watching and listening, but through the stories they told about the origin of their communities and their history, as taught to them through generations of storytelling.
One social worker I remember most vividly had a sign on her office wall. I remember that sign to this day though not the exact wording: We honour and protect all of our people, some are dead, and some are living, but most are not yet born. To me, this phrase represents the resiliency of Indigenous Peoples.
I finally learned that the big abandoned school I lived near when I was a kid was the “Mohawk Institute” or “The Mush Hole”, one of the oldest Residential Schools in Canada which was still operating when I walked past it in 1968. In fact, it didn’t close until 1970. There were children in that school when I played nearby. I never saw them. This haunts me.
Acknowledging the Role of Child Welfare System in Indigenous Inequity
I have worked in child welfare for 34 years now. Only recently has the Ontario child welfare system came to reckon with its role in the perpetuation of genocidal policies and forced assimilation of the Residential School System. I participate in this reckoning, through my own journey of Truth seeking. I use whatever influence I have, to make space for the Truth to be told by and for Indigenous Peoples. I hold deep respect for this process, and I hope to make all the changes within my power toward this Truth and toward Reconciliation.
I acknowledge that I am one small ripple on an endless surface of complacency; however, I will never stop. Even when I retire from my position, I will share what I know and how I know it with whomever will listen.
In May, I received a request from the Chiefs of First Nations in Ontario for information, data, and evidence of child welfare intervention in the lives of children, youth, and families of their communities. It contained an extensive and comprehensive set of questions and information requests from Ontario’s children’s aid societies.
The response to their request will require scrutiny of our practices at an organizational level and at the personal level. It will require case review and file crawls. It will disclose the way in which our interaction with First Nations children and youth was characterized by our biases towards First Nations families, communities, and history.
Halton Children’s Aid Society will respond fully with this request. This compels us to both seek and provide the Truth so we can cross the bridge toward Reconciliation.
If you are a Survivor and need emotional support, a national crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
Residential School Survivor Support Line: 1-866-925-4419