‘The Fur Queen disappeared, leaving her cape and crown, and the ghost child drifting in the womb of space, the wisps of winter cloud its amniotic fluid, turning and turning with a speed as imperceptible yet certain as the rhythm of the spheres. And slowly, ever so slowly, the ghost baby tumbled, head over heels over head, down, down to Earth.’
- Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen
Time is a luxury. Or, more precisely, the manner in which we live our lives in time is a luxury. When you are an Indigenous child in this country living on a reserve, time is not your own: it is managed for you. Childhoods are sped up while decisions affecting your life are slowed down, leaving you, your life, and your wellbeing frozen in time as you await the slow turning of bureaucracy’s wheels.
Jordan River Anderson was a boy from Norway House First Nation who suffered from a rare muscular disease that forced him to spend his entire life in hospital in Winnipeg (800 km. away). His doctors finally allowed him to return to his home shortly after his second birthday. However, the provincial and federal government spent the next three years of his life wrangling over who would pay for his home care. While the time of bureaucratic chronos inched on, Jordan River Anderson died in hospital in Winnipeg at age five, never having experienced a family home. Canada has since passed “Jordan’s Principle” two years after Jordan Anderson’s death, which mandates that the government service of first contact has the obligation to pay for and to treat First Nations children, and settle jurisdictional disputes after care is rendered. However, since the 2007 ruling many First Nations children continue to fall through the cracks as the Jordan’s Principle is narrowly or unevenly applied.
In January of this year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the Canadian government racially discriminates against First Nations children as it fails to provide equal access to welfare and governmental services. This includes not only health care, but also education and child welfare services. According to Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Caring Society, the inequality in funding between reserve and off-reserve support amounts to “racial discrimination by fiscal policy.”
In communities with complex social and health needs as a result of the trauma of colonization and the residential school systems, it is difficult to imagine the strain that grossly underfunded education, health care and social services places on First Nations communities. Many First Nations live in third world conditions without safe water or adequate shelter. In communities such as Attawapiskat, this has given rise to an epidemic of suicide attempts where recently over one hundred youth in a community of two thousand attempted to take their lives.
Schools are also chronically underfunded, and in many northern communities, young teens have to leave the reserve to move to urban centers in order to obtain an education beyond elementary school. In communities recovering from the history of residential schools, the necessity of leaving one’s home and community is a reminder that the separation of First Nations children from their parents by governmental policies has not ended with the closure of residential schools. Many children who move south are not given adequate social and financial support to succeed in an urban environment. As some teenagers recently reported, it is “too late for them now,” but hope that it will be better for kids “that are born today.”
Childhood—a time protected from the intrusion of adult responsibility and necessity—is a racialized luxury in Canada. The ability to spend one’s time under the tutelage of family is a gift lavished upon the settler child and denied systematically to the Indigenous. The managing of First Nations childhood by government bureaucracy means that there is no time where children are not in danger of being apprehended by the colonial clock. This clock determines not only how long it will take to receive critical care (or not), as in the case of Jordan River Anderson, but the duration and extent of childhood—of how long one will be parented, and when guardianship of children will be turned over, by force of law, to the state. As Cindy Blackstock calculates, “According to the First Nations Caring Society, First Nations children spent 66 million nights in care away from parents, family and loved ones between 1989 and 2012.” (Broadbent Institute).
When Nicodemus visits Jesus by night, he asks the question of the world-weary: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The nine-year-old child of Attawapiskat who has already attempted suicide, the children waiting for medical care hundreds of miles from their homes, and the teenagers lost in cities have already grown old, and they long for another birth. Indigenous children in care have aged immeasurably over 66 million nights away from parents and families while our children sleep in safe homes under our obsessive and indulgent watch.
Jesus offers Nicodemus no pat assurance. He meets the fretful question with a difficult realism of his own: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” The answer is “no.” It is an answer that First Nations children in Canada know only too well.
Better policies will replace the worse, but those 66 million homeless nights will never be returned to First Nations children. Canada’s colonial clock will tick on, and heroes like Cindy Blackstock will work valiantly—and often succeed—but merely in slowing it down.
“You must be born from above,” says Jesus enigmatically. I take him to mean that whatever birth might occur in this colonial wasteland the one worth hoping for is attuned to another clock—one that does not keep time to the steady march of bureaucracy. It is one that does not measure out childhood in stingy drams of state benevolence. It is one attuned to more ancient and steady rhythms: like the beating heart of a mother, the beating heart of the earth, or the music of the spheres. When we hear it, we will know that—no matter how old or how world-weary we are—re-birth is at hand. But we must be born from above.