Visibly moved, Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel stood before a room full of press and well wishers on Valentine’s Day and gave thanks.
“It is a great day in Canada when Canada’s judicial system chooses to say that our children are so valuable and precious and sacred that we will protect them by law,” she said. “What a day this is!”
The words of Judge Edward P. Belobaba will ring forever in Martel’s ears, as well as those of the thousands of indigenous children who were taken from their families and put into foster care or adopted into non-Native homes during the 1960s through 1980s in a government sweep known as the Sixties Scoop. Martel led a $1.3 billion class-action lawsuit that began eight years ago, and she along with her fellow students have finally been vindicated in their claim that the government had been required to consult with First Nations about the child welfare program. By not doing that, the decision said, the government breached its “duty of care” to the children in not ensuring a connection with their aboriginal heritage.
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“The uncontroverted evidence of the plaintiff’s experts is that the loss of their Aboriginal identity left the children fundamentally disoriented, with a reduced ability to lead healthy and fulfilling lives,” Belobaba said in the decision. “The loss of aboriginal identity resulted in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, unemployment, violence and numerous suicides.”
The lawsuit is one of many around Canada containing similar allegations, and legal experts said this decision could have implications for those. Though both Conservative and the current Liberal governments tried to get the suit dropped, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government will not appeal this ruling. Next comes the assessment of damages.
Indigenous leaders lauded the decision.
“Children of the Sixties Scoop deserve justice, healing and reconciliation,” said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement. “The Sixties Scoop was part of an ongoing attempt by Canada to rob First Nations children of their language, their rights and their identity. Children have the right to speak their language and stay connected to their heritage. Reconciliation means justice for the Sixties Scoop survivors. It means strengthening and valuing First Nations languages and cultures. It means creating hope and opportunity for First Nations children. Today’s decision is a step towards reconciliation.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations (FSIN) said the decision could have implications for Sixties Scoop survivors elsewhere in Canada.
“These children were victims of colonial policies that were deliberately intended to rob them of their language, their rights and their identity. The adults who still suffer because of government policies need supports such as counseling, healing and reclaiming their identity and their culture,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron in a statement. “The courts and governments need to act quickly to support these survivors in their healing, and that’s going to require resources.”
Martel’s recollections were a case in point.
“I was this big. I didn’t have a voice. I do now. I didn’t when I was vulnerable. But I do now,” said Martel, gesturing with her hand to indicate knee height. “Canada today became a better country. One that protects the cultural identities of all – ALL – our children.”