Justice for Georgia: An Indigenous mother’s fight against child apprehension

Georgia is five years old and about to be moved to her fifteenth foster home. In three of these homes, vetted and provided by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), Georgia was mentally, physically, and nutritionally abused. There are also signs she has experienced sexual abuse. Her mother, Ali Colligan, holds MCFD responsible and says they have attempted to cover up the abuse. “I want them exposed,” she said. “Bring it to light and bring Georgia home. Let her heal.” 

“Ninety-eight kids dead. This is why I keep going,” Ali continued, referring to a report from BC’s Representative for Children and Youth. The report found 98 children in foster care or receiving reviewable services died during a ten month period, from June 2017 to March 2018. Of the 98 deaths, 35 were Indigenous. “I don’t want Georgia to be the thirty-sixth. I don’t want her to be the one that sparks the change because she lost her life,” Ali said. 

Ali Colligan (right) and Linda Nobes (left) sit in Georgia’s bedroom

Ali’s fight is not hers alone. It is a collective struggle against a child welfare system that targets poor and Indigenous families. In a 2008 study, the Public Health Agency of Canada found that at least one-third of child welfare cases included allegations of neglect, a code word for poverty. Indigenous families were investigated for poverty-related “neglect” at eight times the rate of non-Indigenous families. 

There are immediate reforms that the provincial government could implement to begin to address these problems: investing in social housing, raising income assistance rates, increasing financial amounts provided to caregivers under MCFD’s Home of a Relative program, creating an independent body to investigate complaints against MCFD, and implementing other recommendations from the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre’s Red Women Rising. But MCFD itself is beyond reform: it is a colonial apparatus that breaks up Indigenous kinship systems and punishes single mothers for their poverty. Justice for Georgia, and for all children in foster care, means fighting to abolish MCFD.

“All I wanted was support”

Ali, an Anishnaabe woman, found out she was pregnant with Georgia on Boxing Day, 2014. She had gone through five miscarriages previously, the result of being stabbed nine times when she was a teenager. When Ali learned she was pregnant again, she said, “I was scared because of all the losses, but I knew she was going to make it.” Ali was alone through the pregnancy. She explained, “I tried to bring the dad in, but he abused me. It was a mess and he left.” From the beginning, MCFD was involved: “They came to the hospital, they were going to take her right away,” Ali said. But with the support of her neighbour, Linda Nobes, who Ali and Georgia now call “Oma,” Ali was able to hold onto her daughter. 

The first six months of motherhood were not easy. According to Ali, “The Ministry told me if I didn’t have money to support my child, they were going to take her.” On September 30, just a month after giving birth, Ali went back to work as a flagger. She would wake up every morning at 4am, drop Georgia off at daycare, and take public transit from Surrey to Vancouver for work. After working all day, she would pick up her daughter and take her home. “I was getting overwhelmed,” Ali said. “The Ministry was involved because I did relapse. I’m not ashamed to say it now, because I know it happens all the time. It’s what happens when you’re scared, embarrassed, and ashamed, when you have a guy who’s being mean to you, hurting you. It’s what happens when you don’t have support.” 

“She was underweight, she was dirty, she had the worst rash me and Oma have ever seen. They could have killed my daughter at seven months old.”

In February 2016, Georgia was apprehended for the first time and placed in an abusive foster home. “I saw the neglect that was happening,” Ali recalled. “She was underweight, she was dirty, she had the worst rash me and Oma have ever seen. They could have killed my daughter at seven months old.” Ali reported the abuse to MCFD, but nothing was done. It wasn’t until she went to her MP Bruce Ralston and contacted the Representative for Children and Youth that Georgia was removed from the abusive home and placed with her uncle. 

After several months, Ali was able to hire a lawyer and bring her daughter home. During this time, she said, “I passed on my teachings. At 18 months, she knew how to smudge. She could drum the whole Women’s Warrior Song by herself. She marched against the Burnaby pipeline. She said no to the stroller and walked the whole mountain herself at two years old. She sat by the sacred fire for hours. The elders said she was very special and they gave her talking sticks and gifts, because that’s what we do. When we’re ready we get our gifts, and she got hers young. Then the Ministry took it all away.” 

“They lied all the way through”

“I thought when Georgia came home, it was going to be okay,” Ali recalled. “I would get time off, wouldn’t have to work. I was going to be mommy again. But no, there was no money, nothing.” Ali continued working as a flagger and maintained her sobriety for a year. “Then trauma hit,” she said. “I went down a dark path, with the guy who stabbed me getting out of prison, finding out about some family secrets, so much happening all at once. And no daycare, no respite, no nothing. Just, ‘Do it on your own and see what happens.’ I relapsed because I was asking for help, I said, ‘I’m not doing good, help me,’ and they wouldn’t. It was like a set up.” 

To Ali, it became clear that MCFD was retaliating against her for her self-advocacy. “I didn’t realize that Xyolhemeylh, the Ministry’s delegated Aboriginal agency, could be so cruel,” Ali said. “But that’s what happens when you call the Child Rep: they get pissed off and make your life miserable.”

“They put Georgia back in to endure five more months of abuse. I got her out, kept her out, they put her back in.”

Georgia was apprehended again and it was not long before she was placed in another abusive foster home. In November 2018, during a supervised visit, Ali discovered bruises on her three-year-old daughter’s face and body, which she immediately brought to the attention of a social worker. After Ali made a formal complaint to MCFD, they moved Georgia to a temporary placement while they investigated the foster home. “They had an investigation on themselves and, surprise, surprise, they found there was not enough evidence of abuse,” Ali said. “They put Georgia back in to endure five more months of abuse. I got her out, kept her out, they put her back in.”

Ali knew she could not trust MCFD to investigate itself, so she submitted an application for an independent investigation under the Crime Victim Assistance Act. In June 2019, the adjudicator found “sufficient evidence to conclude that Georgia is the victim of a crime,” based on a hospital report from November documenting 27 separate bruises. Despite the findings from Crime Victims, MCFD allowed the abusive foster home to continue operating. “Xyolhemeylh knew it all too and they didn’t do anything,” Ali added. “Think about it – there were kids there before Georgia, kids after her. They would have to track down all those kids, investigate what happened, it keeps going and going. I’m stuck here, just saying let me have my daughter.” 

“We need safety for the babies in care”

“It goes back to residential schools,” Ali said. “It’s me against MCFD and their delegated Aboriginal agencies, saying, ‘This still happens, fix it.’ Instead they keep doing what they’ve done for how many generations, over and over and over.” 

There are more Indigenous children apprehended and living under Ministry care today than there were in residential schools at the height of their use, according to a 2018 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The 2016 Census found over half of all children in foster care in Canada were Indigenous, despite only accounting for 7.7% of the child population. Indigenous children in BC have twice the rate of injuries compared to non-Indigenous kids in foster care, according to a 2020 report from the Province’s Representative for Children and Youth.

“This is not just about Georgia,” Ali insisted. “We need healing for the ones that have passed on, for the ones that are still stuck. We need safety for the babies in care now.”

“Georgia wasn’t an abused child until she was in their system,” Ali continued. “I just want her to heal from what they’re doing to her. An elder should be with her, walking her through healing. I sent her with two drums, with medicine. Where are her drums?” She continued, “When you have to fight the people that are supposed to keep your kid safe, and they’re willing to hide the abuse to keep themselves safe, it’s a lot to take. My daughter has been through so much, more than half the people I know, and all she wants is to come home to mom.” 

“But at this point I’d be happy just to see her,” Ali continued. She and Linda have not seen Georgia in over seven months, with MCFD using Covid-19 as an excuse to block in-person visits. “Georgia is lost without her Oma,” Ali said. “She’s not blood, but she’s been there from the beginning.”

Since MCFD turned her life upside down, Ali has found support and solace on the streets of Whalley, a low-income neighbourhood in Surrey. In 2020, she joined the Surrey Street Council and helped found the Whalley People’s Resource Centre, a street-run space devoted to the collective survival and resistance of the community. She has seen firsthand how the child welfare system devastates poor and Indigenous communities. “There are so many little girls in care, getting abused, and that’s how we end up with the missing women,” Ali said. “I have girls come up to me and say, ‘Ali, I’m glad you’re trying to do something, because they hurt me too, and now look at me.’ Even the daddies are saying, ‘Nobody will help me.’ My friends are dying out here. The majority of people overdosing and dying, it’s because they miss their babies, that’s it. That’s what we’re all doing out here: missing our babies.” 

“This is not just about Georgia,” Ali insisted. “We need healing for the ones that have passed on, for the ones that are still stuck. We need safety for the babies in care now.” 

“I’m trying to be strong enough to listen to my community. I want Georgia to know one day that I fought so hard. I give up once in a while, because it’s so painful, and go back to drinking, but then I pull myself out,” Ali said. “Like the elders say, we’re coming to the end of the seventh generation. It’s time to expose, expose, expose. It’s time to start healing our community.” When asked what she would say to other women in her position, Ali said, “Just don’t give up. I’ll fight for us until we have a solution.” 

On Friday, May 21st at 2pm, there will be a rally at the Ministry of Children & Family Development office (13680 105A Ave, Surrey) demanding justice for Georgia and all children in foster care. Follow Red Braid on Twitter, Facebook, or sign up for emails to receive updates.

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