A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.
Alicia Elliott says indigenous kids have good reason to fear governmental care more than their parents’ poverty.
The Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River speaks from experience.
“In some sense I intuited this, even as a kid. I knew it was bullshit that social workers and cops had so much control over our family, that they could split us up the moment we didn’t cater to their sensibilities. Knowing this then made me hate social workers and cops. Knowing this now makes me hate the systems that empower them – systems that put families in impossible situations, then punish them for not being able to claw their way out.”
Alicia grew up in grinding poverty. She routinely went to school without lunch. She lived with head lice for a decade. Her family moved between empty rental houses and shelters. Alicia, her sister, three brothers and parents eventually settled into a two-bedroom trailer that didn’t have running water for five years. They ate a lot of low-grade ground beef, cheap pasta and pancakes for dinner.
And yet…‘My siblings and I were great students,” says Alicia. “We had no problems at school; no mysterious bruises discoloured our skin. We were liked by our teachers, made friends easily. We never lacked for love or encouragement.
“Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness – things neither social workers nor police offices have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged to patrol.”
Alicia’s family lived under the constant fear that they’d be separated at any moment. And they weren’t alone. Depending on the province, Indigenous kids in Canada are anywhere from five to 12 times more likely to be taken into government care than non-Indigenous children.
While the main reason cited for breaking up families is neglect, Elliot says that’s just another word for poverty. “Social services conflates not being able to afford adequate housing, food, clothing and health care with choosing not to have adequate housing, food, clothing and health care. Instead of supporting poor families and helping them become financially secure, social services’ approach is to simply take the kids. It’s as though they believe that removing the added expenses of children is doing poor parents a favour; or taking kids from loving parents and throwing them in impersonal, sometimes dangerous foster homes is doing them a favour.”
These forced separations have been playing out for hundreds of years, says Alicia.
“So many of our nations have been forcefully displaced, so many of our children stolen from our arms and placed in residential schools or, more recently, in the arms of overworked social workers and violent foster parents, as if white abuse could ever be better than Indigenous love.
“It is only recently that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has been referred to as genocide, and even then, it’s usually been ‘cultural genocide’ as if that somehow softens its edges and makes it more permissible. More Canadian.”
The 14 essays in Alicia’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground sharpen genocide’s edges and make the case for why Canadian success can’t continue to be dependent upon Indigenous destruction. Alicia strips away our national fairy tales and shows our country’s hidden, darker side.
“True reconciliation with Native peoples requires Canada to stop its paternalistic, discriminatory policies and, most important, stop interfering with our sovereignty over our identities, communities and land,” says Alicia. “These are by no means easy or comfortable actions for Canadians to undertake, but they must be undertaken regardless.”