The process of colonization in Canada is rooted in a long history of discrimination and violence against Indigenous peoples. Since first contact, policy and law have attempted to erase Indigenous peoples from the geographic, political, social, and cultural landscape of what has come to be Canada. There are numerous examples, ranging from land theft and the reservation system to the distribution of smallpox blankets in the Prairies, forced sterilization, and the use of enfranchisement (the loss of Indian status) to diminish the “Indian” population.
But perhaps the most insidious methods of colonization were ones that forced the erasure and assimilation of Indigenous children.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008, has spent the last decade shedding light on the horrific era of residential schools, which spanned more than 100 years and didn’t see the last facility close until 1996. Although related, what has come to be known as the Sixties Scoop has received considerably less attention in the Canadian mainstream. Now, as class action suits brought by survivors finally work their way through the courts — this week an Ontario judge issued the first major ruling, finding in favour of Indigenous complainants — it’s vital to learn more about this equally dark part of Canada’s history.
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Prior to the 1960s, there was little to no coordination of provincial child welfare services in Indigenous communities. During that decade, those services expanded to include First Nations communities across Canada. Suddenly, the numbers of Native kids in care jumped as much as 50-fold, and represented a third of all children in care.
During this time children were apprehended by the thousands, swiftly, and with little to no regard to culture (both in assessing children’s situations and in their placement with non-Indigenous families), and no regard for children’s well-being, or the well-being of their families and communities. In tandem with the residential school system, the child welfare system became a site of assimilation and colonization, where the goal was to “kill the Indian in the child” by forcibly removing children from their homes and placing them with non-Native families. Foster and adoptive families were consistently found out of province, and often out of country. These practices have made it extremely challenging for adoptees to be repatriated by their families and communities.
In 1981, the Chiefs of Ontario passed a resolution to create self-governed child welfare authorities that would prioritize the cultural backgrounds of children who did need to be put into care, with preference going to Indigenous families. These authorities also served the secondary function of helping adoptees reintegrate into their homes of origin.
On the heels of that resolution, in 1983 the Canadian Council on Social Development issued an analysis of the situation, a report called "Native Children and the Child Welfare System." Written by then-program director Patrick Johnston, the report estimated that 20,000 Indigenous children had been adopted out between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, and coined the term “Sixties Scoop” to describe the practice.
Immediately following Johnston’s report, Manitoba also commissioned an inquiry into how Native and Métis children were being treated. The resulting analysis, called "No Quiet Place," was released in 1985, and determined that “cultural bias in the child welfare system is practiced at every level.” In it, Judge Edwin C. Kimelman confirmed what Indigenous families had been saying for years: the child welfare system was failing Indigenous children and tearing their communities apart.
In 1990, the federal government created the First Nations Child and Family Services program to download the administration of child welfare to First Nations communities directly. Individual bands and tribal councils have since taken more control over child welfare; finding homes of the appropriate cultural background is now a cornerstone of assessment and placement.
That was only the start of attempting to remedy ongoing inequities in Indigenous child welfare. In 2008, in response to a complaint filed by the Assembly of First Nations with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Canada’s auditor general determined that funding for the care of Indigenous children lagged behind mainstream child welfare systems. She also found that First Nations children were still vastly over-represented in the child welfare system.
- Action urged in the wake of Truth and Reconciliation Commission report
- The Agenda: TRC — one year later
- The Agenda: The residential school experience
- The Agenda: Stolen lives
The effects of the Sixties Scoop linger in Indigenous communities to this day. Adoptees lost their identities and the chance to be brought up in their own cultures. And the values that underpinned both residential schools and the Sixties Scoop are still prevalent in Canadian society. A long history of colonialism continues to manifest in the systemic injustices experienced by First Nations children. From the continued over-representation of Indigenous kids in care to the lack of culturally appropriate education for workers at all levels of the system, there is still a strongly held belief that Indigenous families and communities are not capable of taking care of their own.
The ruling in this first major Sixties Scoop case — there are others pending in several provinces — affirmed that it was “horrendous, destructive, devastating, and tragic.” In his decision, Justice Edward Belobaba determined that the government breached its fiduciary duty to Indigenous peoples and criticized it for suggesting both that consultation with the affected communities would have been fruitless, and that knowledge of potential harm was not within the realm of reasonable foresight in the 1960s.
While the judgment is a move in the right direction, much work remains to be done. Amid the growing discourse of reconciliation, tireless child rights advocate Cindy Blackstock, in a speech she delivered while serving as the Mowafaghian Visiting Scholar at Simon Fraser University in 2013, articulated it best: “For me, reconciliation does not mean saying sorry twice. What really counts is the way that we are treating this generation of aboriginal children."
Tara Williamson is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised in Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Manitoba). She is writer and musician, and she teaches in the public administration program through First Nations Technical Institute at Ryerson University.
Photos courtesy of Crystal Luxemore and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)