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Sharing a story of Cowichan’s Stolen Hearts

“A disheartening mix of poverty, addiction, history and politics has conspired to separate First Nations children from their parents.” —The Canadian Press, August 2011

She wasn’t yet 10 when she took her first drink of alcohol. Her parents were residential school survivors who drank to numb the painful memories; feelings weren’t discussed. She was taught by example this was the way to deal with problems.

In her early twenties she married an abusive man. They were both addicts: drinking first, then came drugs. They had children together. His physical abuse left her with a choice: leave on her own terms or leave in a body bag. Choosing the former, she and her children moved in with her parents.

In her late twenties she approached the government-funded child and family services unit on her reserve for help. She told a social worker she was feeling down, not getting support from her family, and overwhelmed with being a single parent. The social worker told her they no longer offered support to people who did not have a case file with them. She had nowhere else to turn.

A year later, representatives from that unit took her children. A complaint had been made—she doesn’t know by whom—about her drinking while parenting. She’d had no warning: there had been no investigation or assessment.

She asked if the children could stay with a relative, which they did. She was allowed to visit but could not tell the kids why they weren’t living with her because she was told she could not speak about her circumstances with anyone. She still isn’t sure if she can.

To get her children back, she had to meet a series of requirements set out by her social workers. She felt at their mercy. Her lawyer said, “If a social worker tells you the ceiling is the floor, the ceiling is the floor.” She realized early she needed to bring an advocate with her to the meetings because she didn’t think people would believe her if it came down to “their word against mine”.

Support from her community was no better. She spent 45 days in a drug-and-alcohol treatment program, after which she was afraid to return home because she knew what was waiting for her. On reserve she is surrounded by addiction. “Fifteen minutes after I got home, I was offered a drink,” she said.

She trusted only her grandmother. “She would tell me, ‘I don’t know why you drink, but I still love you.’” Her grandmother was there to see her get sober, and was there to see her regain custody of her children. When her case was closed, she says, “It was the most liberating feeling in the world.”

When she tells this story, her tears fall quickly, as though they are sitting on the surface, where the memories are. She is vulnerable but far from weak; she feels guilty but determined. She doesn’t know why alcohol affects her so drastically, why she has no control. “It’s not a light switch,” she says. “I can’t just turn it off.”

She is angry because she asked for help but none was there. She wishes women in her situation had unconditional support — free of judgement, punishment, and persecution. If so, she believes more women would reach out for the help they need to raise their children in a safe and healthy home.

This is the story of one Cowichan mother. A local documentary, Stolen Hearts, tells similar stories of Cowichan mothers whose children are removed. Visit stolenhearts.ca to learn more about the project and how to attend the upcoming test screening of the film. Join the conversation on the Stolen Hearts Facebook page.

Maeve Maguire is a technical writer who lives and works in Maple Bay and writes monthly in the News Leader Pictorial. Visit her blog www.cowichandale.com, or email her at maeve@describewriting.com.

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