A class-action lawsuit against the Canadian government on behalf of tens of thousands of indigenous children who were seized and moved to white families in an adoption wave known as the “Sixties Scoop” can now proceed after being approved by an Ontario judge.
The decision was handed down after several previous lawsuits in Canada failed, and as attention in the U.S. focused on the Baby Veronica custody case.
“[The] harm done was profound and included lasting psychological and emotional damage,” said Justice Edward Belobaba in rejecting the government's arguments and summarizing his rationale for certifying the case, which affects at least 16,000 children in Ontario alone.
The Sixties Scoop followed a similar pattern across Canada, as the federal government signed funding agreements with the provinces that extended provincial child and family welfare services onto First Nations reserves. For example, in Ontario, the Crown signed the Ontario-Canada-Ontario Welfare Services Agreement on December 1, 1965. That lasted until the end of 1984, when a new federal law, the Child and Family Services Act, made “aboriginality an important factor in child protection and placement practices,” Belobaba said in his September 27 decision.
The class action is being represented by Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, who was seized from her Ojibwe family and adopted into a community where she was the only Native.
“It is in the power of the Government of Canada to right this wrong, to change how our Canadian systems work with aboriginal communities, to take the apology they offered and stand by it, and have it be a cornerstone to a new relationship—a dynamic, fulfilling relationship—to extend the apology to more than just fine words,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It needs action.”
Currently, she added, there are “more than just the survivors to contend with. Every community that lost children to the Sixties Scoop has parents and extended family also affected by the loss of their loved ones.
“I was swept from my family, my community, my siblings, my extended family, my ability to function as an aboriginal person at all,” she said, “I had nothing as a young person, to say, 'Yes, I am First Nations,' other than the color of my skin and my hair. That's all I had left.”
As the only aboriginal person in a non-Native community, she felt completely alone in her struggles even into adulthood.
“Personally, it was a very, very lonely time in my life,” she said. “You start searching as a young adult to find your community. I'm very fortunate: I remembered my name as Sally Susan Mathias. Some may be so young that they would never remember their birth name. You don't know where to begin. It is an extremely difficult process.”
According to Sixties Scoop survivor Ernie Crey, who co-authored the 1998 book Stolen from Our Embrace (Douglas & McIntyre) with Suzanne Fournier and founded an aboriginal-run child welfare agency in British Columbia, Canadian aboriginal child welfare policies differ significantly from those in the U.S.
“It's a patchwork quilt here in Canada, versus what's true in the U.S. in the way of child protection,” Crey explained. “There isn't a National Indian Child Welfare Act in Canada, or anything even remotely like it, either. That goes back to the Sixties, when the Department of Indian Affairs refused to legislate child protection under the Indian Act. They abandoned the field to each province. That's what precipitated the Sixties Scoop.”
As some residential schools began to close around the same time, the change in child protection “created a perfect storm,” Crey said. “That's when the social workers from each province literally … descended on the communities and apprehended children en masse.”
Advocates have described the Sixties Scoop as “identity genocide of children.” But many point out that even today there are more aboriginal children in Canada's child welfare system than ever attended residential schools.
“We're basically warehousing thousands and thousands of children in long-term care,” Crey said. “We're confining them to foster care.”
In another prominent case, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society director Cindy Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations have taken the issue of unequal funding for aboriginal child services to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
Blackstock cited recent statistics that 48 per cent of children in foster care are aboriginal – even though they make up less than eight per cent of Canada's children.
“We're looking at thousands and thousands of kids who are being raised away from their families,” she said in an earlier interview. “One of the big lessons that all of us should have learned, and certainly the government should have learned, from residential school, is that children need to grow up in their families. Then they learn the culture of themselves and their people.”
Below, the trailer for a documentary being made about this era, which took an entire generation of children away from their families even as residential schools closed down.