Content warning: Mentions of racialized and colonial violence.
The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs hosted Have A Heart Day, a reconciliation-based event held at the First Peoples’ House on Feb. 14. At the event, some participants wrote Valentine’s Day letters with messages of support to Indigenous youth, while others wrote cards addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanding action.
According to SSMU Indigenous Affairs Commissioner (IAC) Tomas Jirousek, Have A Heart Day provides a vital chance for participants to reflect on reconciliation more deeply.
“Valentine’s Day is very commercialized, but I think at its core, it is centred on love, empathy, [and] caring,” Jirousek said. “[Have a Heart Day is an] outreach to First Nations kids who’ve been apprehended by the child welfare system or the foster care system, [and the idea is] kind of wrapping those kids in love and showing that there are people, First Nations and non–First Nations around the country, who really do care about them.”
The event featured the Executive Director of Montreal’s Native Women’s Shelter, Nakuset, who spoke about intergenerational trauma and the continued separation of Indigenous families in Canada. Nakuset revealed that she was a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, a period in Canadian history when around 20,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed into foster care or put up for adoption.
“So, when I was taken, the government felt that it would be better that [they adopt me] into a Jewish family than to put me with [one of my] family members,” Nakuset said. “I had family members that were willing and able to take care of me, but that was the whole idea [of] assimilation.”
In the 20 years that Nakuset has worked at the shelter, she has noticed an increase in the number of separated families. In particular, she became concerned by the frequency with which children were apprehended or taken away by Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, one of the provincially-funded organizations responsible for child welfare in Montreal.
“When I went to meet the director [of Batshaw] back in 2004 […] I told her there’s a problem here,” Nakuset said. “There’s a problem with the amount of kids that you have in care and the fact that the number is growing. She didn’t think it was a problem. […] I started to notice that there was this thing where the women would have a child, [their] child would get apprehended […] and they would never be able to get the child back.”
In an attempt to keep Indigenous families together, Nakuset developed a collaboration agreement between Batshaw and the Native Women’s Shelter in 2013 that would allow Indigenous women to access support at the shelter before child separation was considered. However, according to Nakuset, Batshaw continually failed to honour the agreement.
“I [had] said, ‘All right, let’s sign a collaboration agreement, let’s say that Batshaw and the Native Women’s Shelter are going to work side by side,’” Nakuset said. “And so a couple of weeks after I signed the agreement, a mother called the shelter complaining, ‘Look, [Batshaw] took my child away. I told [them] that I wanted to come to the shelter, and they said, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about. We never heard of such an agreement.’”
Following this conversation, Nakuset worked with Dr. Elizabeth Fast at Concordia University to publish a study called “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” in Nov. 2019, about Batshaw’s practices of apprehending Indigenous children.
After her talk, participants wrote their Valentine’s Day cards. Hamza Bensouda, an exchange student who attended the event, addressed his Valentine Day’s Card to Justin Trudeau demanding justice.
“[Justin Trudeau] said […] that [the federal government] can always do better,” Bensouda said. “That’s exactly the sentence from his mouth, and [so] the question that I’m asking is about giving respect to people [in the spirit of that statement].”