August 19, 2022
Angela Fireman sits at her dining room table and recounts her past experiences with the foster system. Video by Darick Charbonneau

Some of you may have lived with your grandparents or other relatives for a time.  Perhaps your father was working full time out of town, while your mother was away due to her job as a flight attendant.  You may remember being loved, baking cookies and getting lots of hugs. Many extended families step up to help raise their loved ones’ children.  “It takes a village …” as the saying goes.

Imagine now that the relative’s house that you lived in wasn’t as loving and nurturing as you were used to.  The warm, quiet environment that you thrived in was replaced with a feeling of uncertainty, the house a literal revolving door of people, many of them strangers.  There was blatant drinking all the time, drug use was rampant, and you were abused so much that you looked for a “safe spot” in the house where no one could find you or get to you.

Such are some of the earliest memories of Angela Fireman, 18,  of Huntsville, Ont. A lover of Harry Potter and Greek mythology, not to mention chess, she describes herself as shy, funny and “very out there.” She said at first she can be reserved, but when she gets going, there is NO stopping her.  A hint of this is on display as she talks, the intensity of her personality showing in her eyes especially as she talked about the delicate moments in her life. She sits calmly at her dining room table, sipping water as she recounts her tale, her hands and voice both steady as she details the night when she was taken into custody at age 6 by the Children’s Aid Society. She had been living at her grandpa’s house in the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve.

“I remember being confused, I was told to run into our ‘hiding places’ by my grandpa, but I didn’t know he said that, cause it was me who opened the door when someone knocked on it. There was this big guy standing there saying, ‘Hi there, can I talk to your grandparents,’ but I didn’t speak English well so I didn’t understand what he was saying,” recalls Fireman.  “After a moment he then said it again in Cree, so I said ‘Oh, OK come in’ and that’s when it all happened.”

Concerns had been raised by someone in the community, and after an investigation, the decision was made to remove Fireman and her younger brother from her grandfather’s home due to abuse.  Normally, relatives of the child are contacted first to try and keep the child in their support circle with people they already know and love, but in this instance, it was not possible. Fireman’s father was in jail at the time, and her mother had left her in her grandfather’s care before disappearing for a while.  

“He’s always been in and out of jail. I used to joke around saying that’s his second home.  My mom had us too young, and I think that she was running away from her responsibilities, and that she blamed me for that,”  Fireman said.

When asked about Attawapiskat, Fireman said, “It’s very small. There is a lot of broken language, like English language, they’re not very well educated … they become mothers and parents at 17 years old, sometimes 15 which is sad, but it’s very isolated and you have nothing to do there.”

“Coming into Connor Homes, I had a chance to restart my life.  I didn’t realize it then, but I realize it now as I’m growing older. When I’m going home for visits and coming back here, seeing the language barrier and difference in education, made me hopeful.”

Angela Fireman

Sadly, in Northern Ontario, people on reservations experience this type of societal crisis all too often, with a disproportionate number of Indigenous children being removed from their home for their own safety.

A lot of the reservations up north have little to no connection with the rest of the province.  A prime example is in Moosonee, where the only way in or out of town is a railway track. Drug use is out of control, education is a joke and there is nothing to do but get into trouble.

“Moosonee is the better one out of all the reservations cause you can actually get out of there by train, but the other reservations, you can’t”, Fireman said.  “The train tickets aren’t that expensive, but you gotta arrange stuff. There was an incident where one of my friends, she was just done with living there, so she snuck onto the train and hid in where you put your suitcases ….”

“When she didn’t come home that night, her mom panicked and called the police, and they were waiting for her in Cochrane.  When I heard that, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s really that bad there then.’ She’s the type of person to get into trouble, so everyone is like, ‘Yeah, well it is just her, what can we do about it.’”

Events like this can be commonplace, especially in a country that is still grappling with its own mistreatment and abuse of our Indigenous peoples.  The dark history that is the Canadian Residential School System will long stain Canada’s desired status as a human-rights abiding nation.

The legacy that has been wrought from these schools has had a direct impact on Indigenous people since the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds was submitted to Ottawa in March 14, 1879. Known as the Davin Report, it made the case for a cooperative approach between the Canadian government and the church to implement the “aggressive assimilation” of the Canadian Indigenous peoples. The report concluded that the best way to civilize Indigenous peoples was to start with children in a residential setting, away from their families, so that they could be “kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.”

What followed was over 100 years of children being forcibly removed from their home against their parents’ wishes, the children being shipped sometimes across the country to their new life at a residential school, where they were indoctrinated into being “white.” They were not allowed to speak their native language, only English or French. They were not allowed to practise their spirituality, only Christianity. They were beaten, yelled at, degraded and treated as worthless. They were victims of physical, mental, spiritual, emotional and sexual abuse.  According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is estimated that at least 6,000 Indigenous children died while in the “care” of the Canadian government.

Victor Santiago, a recruit worker at the Child and Family Services of Waterloo Region, which is tasked with finding placements for foster children in the region, provided some insight into how the residential schools have a direct impact on the disproportionate number of Indigenous kids in the foster system.

“Historically there are, obviously, if we look back on our history with the Indigenous peoples as a country, there’s many factors there,” said Santiago.  “Multigenerational trauma that has been perpetuated, really by government policy, and we’re in a mode of reconciliation and really trying to address these issues, but unfortunately there is still an over representation due to multiple factors.”

Some of these factors can be less egregious, like having a baby too young and not being able to care for it properly, while others, like alcohol and drug abuse are very common.  Some of the more serious issues facing these communities and people, are things like multigenerational abuse, a lack of caring, a general breakdown of what we would consider societal norms.

Abuse was cited as the biggest factor of people wanting to “get out” of their communities.  Sexual abuse is prevalent, but no one wants to believe it is so, and oftentimes, people turn their backs instead of helping the child out.

“There are police, but if you talk to them about it, you become that person that no one wants to hang around with.  And if you want to tell someone, you’re afraid that no one will believe you. And if you go to the police too many times, they start to not believe you because they’ve investigated it so many times. “

Angela Fireman

“There are police, but if you talk to them about it, you become that person that no one wants to hang around with.  And if you want to tell someone, you’re afraid that no one will believe you,” said Fireman. “And if you go to the police too many times, they start to not believe you because they’ve investigated it so many times.

“I remember grandpa joking around that he wanted to be a mob boss,” said Fireman.  “I started to read into his background, to know who he was, and there was a lot of negative things like his criminal background, so they were already building a case against him before I was even born.  When I was taken away, there was rumours of a SWAT team there, and there was rumours that he tried to do stuff with us before we were taken away. I didn’t really believe that at first, but then I started to put things together as I grew older, and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if those rumours are true.’”

Some of these issues were factors in Fireman’s case, including the absence of her parents, the criminality of her guardian grandfather and the abuses she had suffered.  What followed was a whirlwind four weeks before Fireman was relocated to a foster family in Huntsville, Ont.

“There was a woman named Christine, and we stayed in this two- or three-bedroom apartment, kind of in the centre of Timmins,” said Fireman as she recalled her childhood.  “The only other memory I have is going to the carnival there, and seeing my aunt and wanting to go back home cause I didn’t like being in Timmins. My aunt had to pretend she didn’t recognize me, like she knew who I was and wanted to do something, but she couldn’t because she wasn’t allowed to talk to me then.”

Fireman’s initial stay in Huntsville was short lived.  She did not feel comfortable living with the family and had concerns about their motives for fostering.

“They weren’t good foster parents there, they like were just in it for the money I noticed. The foster siblings helped us (the other foster children) with school and food while he (the foster dad) went out and partied,” said Fireman.

A lot of work goes into being a foster, but we don’t encourage that at all as a way to make money.

Victor Santiago

Santiago said, “ A lot of work goes into being a foster, but we don’t encourage that at all as a way to make money. The per diems are really in place to provide for the child to access nutritious food, able to go on all the field trips, play sports if they are into that.”

“Obviously there is human nature and we can’t prevent it, if someone is using a per diem to make money.  But the reality is, fostering is quite a challenging thing, and if people are looking to make money, there are a lot more easier ways to do that.  Our foster parents in the Waterloo Region are really people who love children and want to help children, and those are the people we really work with and that’s what I see on a day to day.”

Foster parents are given a daily per diem for each child in their care.  The amount is different in each case, as several factors are taken into consideration when deciding how much the monetary allowance should be.  The base rate for the Region of Waterloo is $44 to $50 a day, though there is additional support for expenses such as school pictures, class trips over $30, school fees such as registration, yearbooks, school uniforms, etc.

After being removed from her initial foster home in Huntsville, Ont., Fireman was moved into a care home run by Connor Homes.  A care home differs from a traditional foster home in that a foster home is typically owned by the foster parents, whereas an agency, in this case, Connor Homes, owns and runs the residence.

“Say you wanted to be a care home parent. After you pass all the required checks, these parents are going to live in homes that we own, as the agency.  That will be their home where they live,” Santiago said. “If they are married or common law, their spouse can work, so it is their home effectively, and then they have children placed there.  When they have children placed there, they do the groceries, cook meals, drive the kids to school, to appointments, they are essentially a live-in parent. It tries to create a family environment as much as possible.”

“Another thing is that care homes, while there is a parent living there, the agency also does provide a worker that will work 40 hours a week to assist the care home parent, just to facilitate things and try and help the parent with whatever they need.”

Currently in Waterloo Region there are six care homes fully staffed and operated.  These homes generally can take between four and six children, though the numbers can fluctuate.  Numbers on how many foster children are currently in the system in Waterloo Region were not made available at the time of this publication.  An October 2017 Waterloo Region Record article stated an average of 480 children and youth, from newborn to 18-year-olds, were living in foster care in the region.

One issue Waterloo Region is facing is a decline in the number of people who are willing or able to foster children.  Traditionally, a large number of foster families were church-based. In addition, a lot of foster families have been fostering for 25-30 years and are getting to that point where they are into retirement and no longer want to, or are not able to do it.

Another significant factor according to Santiago,  is that traditional foster families, at least in the Region of Waterloo, were mainly working class and had one parent who stayed at home.

“Now the reality of the demographics and just the cost of living, is that it really isn’t that common anymore.  So we are looking at different ways of addressing this, reaching out to young professionals, for example. Reaching out to two-parent working households and seeing how we can better incorporate them into the foster system to add that support.”

While it is true that the number of foster families is declining, this is also true of the children in care.  Removal of the child from the home is now the extreme last resort.

“There is a consistent decline in kids in care, which we think is a good thing, and the other thing too, is that we are really focused on keeping kids in their families.  So what we mean by that is having Kin Care,” Santiago said.

“So the first thing we do, is we always try to find a relative, a really close family friend, someone who that child considers family and a trusted person, because children just do better with someone that they know, someone who loves them, and we want to make sure that the child stays within their network and community.  We really look at foster parents, as much as we love them and really appreciate the work that they do, we really look at them as a last resort if that child cannot be placed within their family.”

“Weight is given to the voice of the child.  It is very important for the child to be heard, but again, there is a thorough in-depth search, is the child safe?”

Victor santiago

“Weight is given to the voice of the child.  It is very important for the child to be heard, but again, there is a thorough in-depth search, is the child safe?  An entire team looks at the situation, weighs and assesses it. Multiple family members may be involved in this decision, so unless there is an imminent threat to the safety of that child, it wouldn’t be a rush visit to pull the child from the home” Santiago added.

Another priority for the Family and Children’s Service of Waterloo Region is keeping the children within their culture whenever possible. Whenever there is a concern for an Indigenous child there is an opportunity for that Band to take the child first, and to work with the agency on what is best for the child.  The family and the community is involved, so all steps are taken to ensure that an Indigenous child is culturally matched when placed into care.

“We do have situations, for example, where the Band might not just take the child in, but the parent in as well.  So it is full circle healing and keeping families together,” said Santiago.

“I’ve always felt connected to my heritage,” said Fireman.  “My dad does some of the cultural events, he does the medicine walks, and we will sing.  We’ll talk about our heritage, we recently learned how to make a drum, and I’m learning how to make moccasins from an elder back home.”

Though she had a rough childhood, Fireman is a product of her circumstances, and she has been moulded into a driven, resilient young woman who is dead set on changing the world.  For the last few years she has been an advocate, both for change in the foster system regarding how the government weighs foster children’s opinions, and for her younger brother who lives in care with her.  She got her first taste of advocacy when she used the Ontario Child Advocate service for the first time as a teenager.

The Ontario Child Advocate’s Office is guided by the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the principles of non-discrimination, seeking the best interests of the child; the right of all children to life, survival and development, and the right of children to participate.

“Well, it started out when I was living in foster care when I was young.  The first memory I have was when I didn’t want to go back home for a visit.  I called the advocacy board and they helped, just for a few months. They stopped the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services from bugging me for months, and when they started again, they and the advocacy board fought and fought, and the advocacy group won every time,” Fireman said.

The advocacy board also helped Fireman when she fought her grandfather in court to not have to go visit him.  Fireman cited the extreme alcohol and drug use in Attawapiskat, as well as generally feeling unsafe, and the exposure of her little brother to bad influences as reasons why they shouldn’t have to go back for visits, and the court agreed.

“My grandpa was very upset.  He kept saying that I was going to get white-washed, or just become another white person,” Fireman recalled.

Another area Fireman hopes to affect change is in her hometown of Attawapiskat.  She was recently accepted into the photography program for her post-secondary education at Fanshawe College, and hopes to turn that skill into a vehicle for change.  She would like to go back and show the world the real situation back home. She hopes to show, through gritty, raw pictures, what it is really like to, not live, but survive there.

Though Fireman spent two-thirds of her life in the foster system from ages 6-18, and though she has been in four different foster homes, it hasn’t coloured her life in a negative way.  So many former foster children describe their experiences as hellish, horrible and disgusting, but it seems we never really get to hear about the success stories. Fireman described her experience in the foster system as “hopeful.”

“Coming into Connor Homes, I had a chance to restart my life.  I didn’t realize it then, but I realize it now as I’m growing older. When I’m going home for visits and coming back here, seeing the language barrier and difference in education, made me hopeful.”

“I am hopeful because I have a chance to make it out and make a name for myself and bring a positive vibe to the Fireman name and try to rebuild what my grandfather built, to tear that down and to rebuild it with positive stuff.  Not all Firemans are bad, we just had a grandfather who expected us to be the worst people out there. Coming into Connor Homes was very hopeful for me.”

Fireman is taking the world by storm.  This is thanks in part to the hard-working, caring foster parents she had like Heather and Kathy (previous foster parents who Fireman maintains a close relationship with).  Fireman also has the love and support of Jim and Joanne, her current foster parents whom she no longer considers as fosters, but her actual family.

Foster parents can make a difference.  Waterloo Region is the fastest-growing region in all of Canada, and is in need of foster families.

“The priority for the Waterloo Region really is more foster families.  The more families we have, the better we can match a child to the family and home that they need,” said Santiago.

“ We do offer expertise, we have people who have been here over 20 years who really understand the system, really understand how to support families, and how to get families to work with us.  We really want to be viewed as a force for good in the community, and really want to work to make sure that (foster) children aren’t just surviving, but thriving in every sense of the word.”

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