A Letter to Matthew: Child welfare policy in Canada
A Letter To Matthew
(for Matthew Vaudreuil, RIP 1992)
I lived with my parents. Unlike you I did not die. Although it was a possibility. I had a teacher. Mr. Killer. He told me. The streets, more safe than home. Run away. Get out. Like you. The system failed me. I pleaded. Teachers help me. Abuse. Hate life. I did not want to live. Attempts to take life. Twelve years. One teacher listened. He cared. None else gave a shit.
You can relate. A murdered infant. This system sucks. Fucking sucks. Fucking sucks. Guess what? The Ministry of children don’t care. Don’t care. But Mr. Killer did. He made them care. Fucking mad. He swore. Cursed. Belittled. Berated. Finally, that bitch at the counter talked to my parents. Finally, I was going. Stupid home. People I hate so much. Rape. Black eyes. Bruised ribs. Face Kicked. Choked. Molested. Tossed down stairs.
My sweet mom. My strong dad. The helpful child welfare. The protective OPP. That cop. A real cunt. “You’re a bad kid. If you were mine, I’d slap you too.” I attack. I rebel. Wrath. Revolution. Threatened. Ministry appeased. Safe home. Wounded child. Cops and parents. Shake hands. “That kid, Insane.”
I knew. In that moment, I had to leave. The next time it happened. My dad unleashed a new level of fury. Tired. Depressed. Death. Twelve years. A boy. That was you. That was me. The old prick. Kicked me in the head. I cried. I screamed. I begged. Stop. Rage lifted me. Defense. Offense. The front door slams. Motor revs. Drives away. Safety. The release. Over the fence.
I knew. In that moment, Mom didn’t care. That bitch. That bitch sick-ed him on me again.
Sadist. Conducted the hound. Panting. Frothing. Growling. Wolfing. Bones cracking. Children cry. Scream pain. Agony. Despair. Escape. Run. Run. Run. Air Canada. Greyhound. The thumb. Reaching out.
Now years later. Thirty six. Apologies. The torture. The sorrow. The guilt. Disappointments. Denial. Thick denial. Ignorance. Her recovery. In the gutter. Silence. Don’t start now. You can relate Matthew. I mean fuck. Your mom killed you. Is your death happiness? A system of punishment. They got away. I got older. They feared me. Age. Mortality. Frailty. Torment.
I survived. Streets. Jails. Institutions. Graveyards. Independence. Resilience. Thriving. Demonstrated perseverance. Scavenged. Panhandled and stolen foods. Surrendered from the abyss. Finally breathing the breath of life. Cease abuse. Established empowerment of self-determination through the resurrection of a dead child. This is my redemption.
You can sleep. Quietly. Solemnly. Soundly. As can I. I found us. In others. Those survivors. The meaning and purpose of suffering. Established and created. Bridges. Smiles. Laughter. Hope. And finally, light. You. Me. Exploring. Fashioning. And loving. Establishing networks. Engaging systems. Letters behind my name. Freedom through accountability of them and us and I. I manifested our hope. Our light. We discovered life. We are free.
*Poem published in West Coast Line (SFU) no. 72, 2012
Having experienced child abuse, which included neglect, physical and sexual abuse; both myself and Matthew experienced childhoods that no child should ever endure. Admitting though that the comparison of my experience, to that of Matthew’s, were very different. After all I am still alive and little Matthew is dead. Killed. But we both live in this poem.
It appears that my family experience was not nearly as tumultuous as Matthew’s home life. Matthew was born and raised in the same area as me, the Peace River District of Northern Alberta and BC. Although born two decades apart, our lives correlated in so many ways. The similarities that we shared, far surpassed our differences.
Eventually Matthew succumbed to abuse. He became a statistical fatality. He was a young child, who was abused and tortured by his caregivers. A bruise faced child. Bruised ribs, mutilated penis and many other horrific details which were described in the judicial report known as the Gove Report.
I did not learn about Matthew until the beginning of my Master’s of Social Work (MSW) degree. My under-graduate degree was in First Nations Studies. Having had a robust academic career, within the spectrum of anti-oppressive studies, which has enabled me to achieve personal realization that there are many issues within our ‘systems’. Our social welfare structures have so many gaps and failings it is sometimes puzzling. This has been true for many decades, and still rings truth today. This can be seen in the current battle between Dr. Cindy Blackstock, a Gitskan child welfare advocate, and her human rights complaint against the federal government in Canada. Cindy has brought the intersectionality of child protection issues, and capitalistic approach of putting profit before people, into a legal summoning; declaring that the administrative abuse of children is un-acceptable. Of course Cindy has become the target, to some degree, of the federal government’s sights. She has been under some sort of surveillance by the federal government for sometime now. It is people like Cindy Blackstock who bring the voice of children to forefront, especially in context to systemic abuses.
My intention is to protect people, specifically children, in spite of failing child welfare systems. There is a solution. And that solution does rest on the shoulders, and within the spectrum of power, of each child protection worker. Every worker within the ‘system’ essentially volunteers to be accountable and responsible for the abuse of children in Canada. A Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) worker, with delegated authority, has a duty to report all reportable child protection issues; moreover, every person has the legal obligation to report all child abuse to MCFD but child protection workers are implicated to a greater degree in this legislated responsibility. Workers have the potential to push the system to address the needs of Canadian children. Although, many choose not to resist and they merely comply with orders of the state. However, there are many workers who will stand up within the system to ensure that accountability exists with the child welfare system. These workers can become the change they want to see in the system.
As my Master’s program began I was adamant and determined to achieve and ensure that I do not become part of the problem. I swore that I will not be a compliant agent of the state. Having a solution focussed, task oriented, mindset has provided me with resiliency throughout my life. In the first week of the MSW program, I had to select where I would do my professional practicum placement for eight months.
MCFD just happened to be my calling. While at a summertime feast at a classmates yard, we were gathered around a fire pit. Drinks, conversation and relational being was the climate. I made a connection that night. One of the managers from MCFD was at that fire pit. She was intrigued by my research interests. I was interested in indigenous child welfare, the colonial dynamics between the state and the first peoples of Canada, and my ongoing interest of systemic racism.
She connected me to the regional management office where she worked. I followed through with the networked connections and established a relationship with several workers. My practicum placement was arranged to work within the First Nations child welfare system. My area of proposed interest was to examine racism within policy and legislation. There were many uphill battles and personal challenges to overcome, given my historic relationship with the child welfare system. Having been failed by child protection workers when I was twelve-years-old there was no room for trusting Social Workers, nor child protection workers, let alone the system itself.
On the first day of my practicum placement I gathered as much literature, policy, and legislation that I could find. Having sat and met my supervisor who was non-First Nations, but understood the grotesque colonial historical context between Canada and the first peoples, was a gift. Further, my practicum supervisor Wendy Flanagan had written a great thesis that challenged the discipline of Social Work. Reading her work allowed me to trust her, in a very intimate and legitimate way, and a very professional manner. She offered me support and de-briefing during my practicum placement due to my past relationship and struggles. I was honest about my life and where I came from. I expressed my lack of trust for the system and child welfare/protection workers. She gave me hope that there are good people who understand, and actually care, within the system. She built a bridge of alliance and trust between me and ‘the system’.
After several days of sifting through policies and legislation, I was having difficulty locating information I sought. Intending to find patterns of embedded racism within Canadian child protection legislation, that exploited First Nations children, families and communities led me to many judicial reports. One of which, as mentioned above, was the Gove Report.
Sitting in my office at MCFD was a difficult task. I had flooding memories of the child abuse I had endured. I remembered when my grade eight teacher Mr. Killer brought my abusive home life to the attention of the school principle, police and child welfare. No one seemed to care except Mr. Killer. Recalling these scenarios Mr. Killer’s voice rings in my ears as he exploded at the apathetic position of ‘professionals’ who did not seem to care about an abused boy. Not only did the child protection agencies and police ignore me, they refused me any help while I lived on the streets as a young boy.
As I sat in my office at MCFD feelings of anger, sadness and gratitude simultaneously manifested into a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts, as I sat reading the Gove Report. Relating to Matthew’s experience of horrific child abuse, I thought of my own children, and how lucky they are. They are relatively safe. Recalling memories of my life on the streets of East Vancouver, to my involvement in youth gangs and the right-wing-racist-skinhead-movement; to sitting in a MCFD regional office, with my nametag on the door was absolutely surreal.
I flipped scrolled through the pdf document: The Gove Report. As tears flowed out of my eyes rolling and dropping onto the desk, and overwhelmed by feelings of fear, which led to thoughts that someone in the office may see me sitting in a dark office crying silently, alone. It took me nearly three hours of sitting in my office with the Gove Report, reading a detailed account of Matthew’s experience, while contrasting it with my own child abuse memories to understand that I needed to be where I was. My realization that justice has not been served, neither for Matthew nor myself, struck me. I had to do something more than my research in order to deal with what I was feeling. I began to write a letter to Matthew.
Having worked as a counsellor in a men’s residential addiction recovery program, and my experiences as a social-service-user, it became clear that the exercise of writing a letter to Matthew would assist me with processing my feelings. This letter was a lengthy piece.
Later that week I met an aboriginal poet named Garry Gottfriedson, at the Weaving Words aboriginal writing festival. He picked me out of a crowd and sat next to me. He and I shared several hours together intimately sharing aspects of our personal stories that were so similar. It was a beautiful and freeing dialogue. I shared my letter to Matthew with him. Garry then indicated that he was going to be my writing mentor. He committed to assist me in developing my writing into a profound poetic voice.
Matthew helped me that day, through the Gove Report, that little dead boy brought me freedom. His death is not in vain. I lived through the abuse. Matthew is my proverbial little brother. It became apparent that my voice is Matthew’s voice. Our spirit and consciousness is the same. We are tied metaphysically through societal relations. The strings of MCFD brought our kinship into a relationary ethical space. My Letter to Matthew is my commitment to all children who suffer abuse. Should a case be brought to me, I pledge to advocate and use all of my knowledge, experience and energy to ensure the safety of a child. I have done this in the recent years and I will continue to fulfill my role as an independent and unpaid child welfare advocate until I die. Ensuring that these colonialist abusive dynamics are acknowledged, minimized, and when possible, stopped.
 Child, Family, and Community Service Act (CFCSA, 1996)
 A combined paraphrase of a quote by Ghandi and ideas orchestrated by structural social worker Robert Mullaly (2007 & 2009)
 Flanagan, W. (2011). Cultural studies: The silenced or courageously loud sister of social work
(Master’s thesis). University of Northern British Columbia: Prince George, Canada.
 A Letter to Matthew, published in the West Coast Line no. 72, 2012
 Garry Gottfriedson is a Secwepemc published writer, teacher and language carrier
 University of Northern British Columbia’s Aboriginal Weaving Words Storytelling Festival
 Willie Ermine on Ethical Space: Article: http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/ilj6&div=12&id=&page=