‘The child-welfare system is residential schools part two,’ says lawyer

How Black and Métis lawyer Roslyn Chambers is holding colonial courts to account

This article contains content about residential “schools” that may be triggering. IndigiNews is committed to trauma-informed ethical reporting, which involves taking time and care, self-location, transparency and creating safety plans for those who come forward with stories to share.

Roslyn Chambers says she first began drawing connections between residential “schools” and Canada’s child-welfare system during law school.

It was the early 2010’s, and she was studying law at Dalhousie University in Halifax. After learning that her peers didn’t know about Canada’s residential “school” system or the Sixties Scoop — something Chambers believes everyone should know about — she started a discussion group. 

They welcomed guest speakers to join them, and Chambers says their teachings helped her to understand that “the child-welfare system is residential schools part two.”

“The same principles that put residential schools in place are almost identical to what’s happening within the child-welfare system today,” she tells IndigiNews

“It’s another thing that we’re going to get an apology for in twenty years.” 

Chambers is a Black and Métis lawyer and the co-founder of Chambers Caldwell Law LLP. She spoke with IndigiNews about why it’s important to fight for Indigenous kids and families involved in the child-welfare system, and what lawyers can do differently. 

Anna McKenzie: What is your area of expertise or focus as a lawyer, and how long have you been practicing?

Rosyln Chambers: I practice family law and child protection. I’ve been practicing for five years, which seems like a very short time. I was a mature law student with a lot of life experience. I think that’s part of why my practice is very strong and growing.

AM: How many parents [roughly] have you represented in cases against the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) or a Delegated Aboriginal Agency (DAA)?

RC: Hundreds. Somewhere between 200 and 250, and that’s in five years. That doesn’t include the people that call for advice.

AM: Why is it important for you to fight for Indigenous kids and their families who are involved with MCFD?

RC: It’s important to me because of the families that are broken and they’re getting broken apart by the Director [of MCFD], by the government, and their colonial views. I don’t know how else to describe it. Colonial arrogance, white privilege … The Director steps in and decides where that child goes, when in fact, the family and the community probably could have dealt with that situation better and with less disruption to the child.

It’s important to me because I’ve got a few new tools right now with the new Act [respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families]. I’m quoting it all of the time, and the judges are listening. The legislation has to change now that we have this new Act. The provinces need to step up. 

I’m doing this work because I don’t want to see yet another government apology in twenty years. I want to make sure that every family, whether it’s a mom or dad or a grandmother, gets to have their voice heard against the Director. There are so many sad stories where the parents don’t get a lawyer, don’t know what to do, and end up losing their kids. It’s disgraceful, and so my work is basically trying to reunite the family. The Director has to understand that and they have to be more flexible and understanding instead of destroying families. Not all families are perfect.

Chambers stands outside Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre where she was invited to speak with parents navigating the child-welfare system on May 30, 2018. Photo by Brielle Morgan

AM: What do you think needs to be changed about the way the legal system approaches Indigenous child welfare cases?

RC: The very first thing is, they have to listen to the parents. I think the judges need to listen to the parents a lot more. Also, the Director needs to be checked. That’s the key. 

There’s been a number of refreshing changes recently, because we’re in an environment now where judges have a better understanding. Recently, a judge said that the Director shouldn’t go unchecked and that the court should be [more] engaged … and this was based on me trying to get an Indigenous child out of a non-Indigenous foster home. It’s important to me because these families are broken, and they are getting broken apart by the government.

I also think the Director shouldn’t be able to just remove kids and then deal with it later. [Social workers] should be calling and looking for a family member and involving the child’s nation where possible. Instead, parents may not be able to see their child for weeks. 

There’s also a lack of adequate access. The Director seems to think that two hours, two or three times a week, is adequate to see your child. 

There’s also a lot of people that rely on kids being in care. If you look it up, you’ll see how much money is spent on legal fees going to trial. There’s a financial infrastructure that relies on a certain amount of kids being in care. That money should be put into preventative measures like keeping kids at home, supporting parents with child care and respite care, services for mom and dad … that is money better spent that is going to make a change. ​​Or even just give [the money] to communities. Give it to First Nations.

There are some amazing social workers out there that really work to try and get the kids home, but they are the exception, sadly.

AM: What do you want other lawyers to know or do differently when they are representing indigenous families involved in the system?

RC: I want them to be empathetic. I want them to fight hard to be the advocate. You are the voice of your client. I want them to understand all of the services that may be available to Indigenous clients, like legal aid or supports in finding housing so parents can work towards getting their kids back. Those resources give us [lawyers] extra hours for Indigenous client support. 

Be more imaginative and try to support the person as a whole. Also, make sure you know the kid’s name.

AM: Would you say law students are encouraged to pursue child protection law in school?

RC: No, I don’t think they are. It’s not sexy, it’s not fancy. It’s possibly not even lucrative. But it is a very valuable thing. I think there has to be a larger emphasis on it in family law, and I think it should also be a course on its own. A child protection [course] will help people understand the historical disadvantage of a group of peoples, and it’s sad to say that out loud but the child-protection system is the new residential school.

AM: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

There’s another thing that perpetuates the historical disadvantage, and that’s “the watchlist.” 

It’s easy to get into the child-protection system. It is very difficult to get out. 

It’s also, you know, a stereotype. It’s like we don’t expect you to do well if you came out of the system, which is kind of ironic.

Also, kids are still being removed at birth. It was supposed to have stopped, but it still happens. One of my proudest moments was supporting a mom whose new baby was removed. She was still in the hospital and then she came home without the baby, but the baby came home that afternoon because I went to court right away and I said this is completely ridiculous. When you take a child away at birth, you know you are changing this child’s destiny and ability to bond.

Instead of coming and taking kids, provide [families] with [the] supports and services in advance. 

A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866 925-4419.Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society aims to provide a “non-judgmental approach to listening and problem-solving.” The crisis line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-588-8717 or go to kuu-uscrisisline.com. KUU-US means “people” in Nuu-chah-nulth.


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