Sixties Scoop: the other head of the hydra known as cultural genocide

Like child soldiers, Aboriginal children removed from their families during the Sixties Scoop were the pawns in a political chess game of cultural obliteration in Canada – except in our case they were given bibles, not guns

The dust has barely settled on the controversy surrounding the limitations of the recently announced National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, as yet another case involving more Indigenous tragedy makes its way through the courts. 

At Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Tuesday, August 23, a rally is planned in support of victims of what has infamously come to be known as the “Sixties Scoop.” The rally coincides with an ongoing class action suit brought by Sixties Scoop survivors Marcia Brown-Martel and Robert Commanda on behalf of Ontario survivors. 

The class action accuses the Government of Canada of “turning a blind eye or outsourcing its duty to preserve Aboriginal cultural identity for all of the children in Ontario who were placed in non-Aboriginal homes for adoption or as Crown ward or foster children.” The suit claims Canada breached its constitutional duty of care to Aboriginal children “by omitting or failing to take reasonable steps to prevent the plaintiffs from losing their cultural identity.” The suit asks for $85,000 in general, special and aggravated damages for each member.

The case was originally filed in 2009 and has faced a number of legal challenges and delays. The Government has appealed every step of the way, requiring the petitioners to get the class action certified twice. The legal maneuvering by government lawyers includes a failed attempt last month for an adjournment, presumably for more time to prepare evidence.

Last week, a number of prominent Indigenous leaders, including Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day, former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine and Cindy Blackstock of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, signed an open letter calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resolve the issue “without delay” and “put an ugly legacy behind us.”

Back in the days of the Beatles, Beach Boys and beatniks, the residential schools scandal of systemic abuse was just entering its final phase when a new danger appeared. Some 16,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children in Ontario were taken from their families by children’s aid societies and placed into foster and adoptive care between 1965 and 1984.

The soldiers of misfortune this time were not priests and nuns but the minions of various social service agencies, dedicated to making sure Native children had proper and respectable Canadian upbringings, not Aboriginal ones prone to unacceptability. Children were forcibly taken from their families and then farmed out to mostly white, non-Native foster families, for a variety of reasons, some understandable, others more difficult to comprehend.  

For example, Native children who were looked after by their community and extended families rather than just their parents were often considered abandoned by child welfare agencies. In addition, poverty was frequently seen as a lifestyle choice rather than a consequence of colonization, so a life in the suburbs was seen as far superior to life on some reserves.

Those suburban good intentions frequently failed to live up to expectations, with the result being a generation of Native youth haphazardly spread out across the country, and in several cases, in foreign lands.  Some experienced overt racism, as well as psychological and physical abuse. Think of it as another head of the hydra frequently called cultural genocide. 

I have always found “Sixties Scoop” an innocuous term.

Many other countries use child soldiers as agents of their political objectives. Historically, Aboriginal children were the pawns in a similar political chess game of cultural obliteration in Canada, except in our case, they weren’t given guns. They were usually given bibles and a different identity.

As a youth, I heard very little about the Sixties Scoop on my reserve. Being raised by a single mother in a house with no plumbing or electricity, I was potentially prime pickings for such a government policy. I couldn’t help wondering why this federal game of Pied Piper didn’t have a higher public awareness.

Sometimes you need a little distance to see.  It wasn’t until I was living in Toronto and  traveling more frequently for work that I began to get the full picture. I met a highly disproportionate number of Native adoptees, far more than non-Native. This was more than just happenstance at work it seemed to me. A woman I was dating, who happened to be adopted, clued me in to the “scoop up.”

Coincidently, within a few months I was asked to write a short story for the Christmas edition of the Globe and Mail. I wrote about the troubled return of a daughter to her family and community 35 years after being taken away. The story would become a successful play and then a trilogy of plays dealing with the ongoing issues of reintegration. And still the battle rages on.

In fact, in some places like the Prairies, so many Aboriginal children were being dumped into eager arms of child welfare organizations, an advertising campaign was initiated by the province urging the public to welcome these poor neglected children into their homes. 

The program was called AIM, which stood for Adopt Indian/Metis, and shared an acronym with  the American Indian Movement, the political organization south of the border involved in several violent encounters with the U.S. government over issues of Native self-determination. The irony was not lost on us. It never is.

Marcia Brown was removed with an older sister from her family on the Temagami First Nation reserve near Kirkland Lake by a children’s aid society when she was four or five years of age. Her name was changed when she was nine. Never told of her Native roots, she was sent to North Bay by her adoptive mother when she was 17. Robert Commanda was removed with three brothers from his home when he was two years old. He first learned of his Native background when he was 18.

While it should be pointed out that many of these adoptions were positive and resulted in strong family relations and a healthy upbringing for some, for others, much like the victims of residential schools, was a loss of who they were.

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and novelist from Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough. | @nowtoronto 


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