The story still haunts me 35 years later. A young man returns to his home in the British Columbia interior to find his younger brother dead of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. This tragedy was described painfully and eloquently by Wayne Christian, chief of the Splatsin First Nation, at a conference organized by the Canadian Indian Lawyers Association in Regina in 1981. He was talking about his own brother.

Christian’s brother was a victim of what has become known as the “Sixties Scoop.”

The 1960s marked an exponential increase in the number of Indigenous children apprehended by child welfare authorities. They were removed from their families, their communities and their culture and placed in foster or adoption homes.

By 1977, an estimated 15,500 Indigenous children in Canada were living in care of child welfare officials. They represented 20 percent of all Canadian children living in care, even though Indigenous children made up less than 5 percent of the total child population. The situation was especially acute in the four western provinces where the proportion of Indigenous children in care ranged from 39 percent in British Columbia to 60 percent in Manitoba. These statistics were gathered in a 1980 study by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), Foster Care and Adoption in Canada (written by H. Philip Hepworth).

The term Sixties Scoop first appeared in print in my 1983 book, Native Children and the Child Welfare System, which built on the work in the earlier CCSD study. During the course of my research for the book, I interviewed a retired social worker in British Columbia, who said that during the sixties, she and her colleagues “scooped” children from reserves “almost as a matter of course.” The phrase was so evocative that I used it as the heading of the chapter in my book that presented the statistics.

That social worker was in tears when I interviewed her. At the time, she honestly thought that she had been acting in the best interests of the children by removing them from their families. She had come to believe, however, that the wholesale apprehension or “scooping” of Indigenous children in the sixties had been a terrible mistake. Once admitted into care, the Indigenous children she and her colleagues had apprehended were much less likely to be returned to their parents than other children. If they were placed in foster families or adopted, it was very likely they would be placed with a non-Indigenous family. Between 1969 and 1979, for example, the CCSD study found that 78 percent of status Indian children who were adopted were placed with non-Indigenous families.

Perhaps most damaging of all, they were removed from their culture, with the accompanying loss of identity.

The removal of any child from his or her natural parents is inherently traumatic. And there is no doubt that some of the children removed during the Sixties Scoop needed protection. But Indigenous children apprehended during the sixties weren’t just removed from their immediate families; they were removed from their communities and extended family members who could have offered support. Perhaps most damaging of all, they were removed from their culture, with the accompanying loss of identity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) described this phenomenon as a kind of “triple jeopardy.”

As was the case with Indian Residential Schools, not all children apprehended during the Sixties Scoop were adversely affected by the experience. Some were placed with loving and supportive adoptive families and have gone on to lead happy, productive lives. But for many Indigenous children, like Christian’s brother, the outcome was far from positive.

During his 1981 Regina speech, Christian explained that his brother had been apprehended at a very young age and placed with a white family. When his brother was older, however, he returned home to the Splatsin First Nation, because he could not identify with or fit into a “white person’s world.” But when he returned, after being away for so long, he didn’t fit in at home either. Christian described his brother’s confusion, his loss of identity and sense of himself. He also talked about his own pain at seeing his brother’s torment, his attempts to help and, ultimately, his inability to do so.

For a short period in the early 1980s, and in response to the advocacy efforts of groups such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Canadian Indian Lawyers Association, provincial authorities began to address the issue. Manitoba, for example, became the last province finally to ban the practice of placing Indigenous children for adoption in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and other southern US states. Manitoba also established an independent inquiry into the adoption and foster placement of Indian and Métis children. The inquiry was headed by then associate chief judge Edwin Kimmelman, and its 400-page report, No Quiet Place, was released in 1985.

This flurry of attention paid to the Sixties Scoop phenomenon did not last long, however, and the issue virtually disappeared from the public policy radar screen for the next 20 years or so. More recently, however, interest in the Sixties Scoop – and the long term and negative impact it had on Indigenous children, families and culture – is being revived.

Manitoba became the last province finally to ban the practice of placing Indigenous children for adoption in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and other southern US states.

Several factors might explain the resurgence of interest in the Sixties Scoop.

First, the TRC characterized the Sixties Scoop as a legacy of the residential school system. In the 2015 report the commissioners wrote, “what has come to be referred to as the ‘Sixties Scoop’…was in some measure simply a transferring of children from one form of institution, the residential school, to another, the child-welfare agency.” As an indication of the importance the commissioners attached to this issue, the first five calls for action in the report related to child welfare.

Coinciding with the release of the TRC’s report, former premier Greg Sellinger issued a formal apology for the Sixties Scoop in the Manitoba legislature in June 2015.

In part, the renewed attention paid to the Sixties Scoop can also be attributed to the tireless efforts of Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. In 2007, Blackstock and the society filed a human rights complaint against the federal government for its failure to provide equitable and culturally based child welfare services to First Nations children on reserve. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Commission ruled that the federal government’s failure to provide equitable and culturally based child welfare services to First Nations children on reserve amounted to discrimination.

The individuals affected have also become more active and public in speaking out about the impacts of the Sixties Scoop. Several Facebook groups have been established, for example. In April 2016, Indigenous people who were adopted during the Sixties Scoop rallied on Parliament Hill to push for reforms to Indigenous child welfare.

Finally, a series of class action lawsuits have been launched in five provinces, the most recent in Manitoba in April 2016. They have undoubtedly helped put the issue back on the public policy agenda. More importantly, these class action suits may very well keep the Sixties Scoop in the public’s eye until there is some kind of resolution. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the establishment of the TRC was one of the terms of the out-of-court settlement of a class action lawsuit filed by former residents of Indian residential schools.

The most important and most advanced of the class action suits is also the oldest and the first to be filed. The Ontario case was launched in 2009 on behalf of Marcia Brown Martel, chief of the Beaverhouse First Nation. Like many other Indigenous children, she was removed from her family at the age of four, spent several years in foster homes and was then placed for adoption with a non-Indigenous family. Abandoned by her adoptive family at 17, she returned to the community and a culture to which she no longer had any ties. A summary judgement hearing will take place in the Ontario Superior Court on August 23, 2016, and both sides will have an opportunity to present arguments. The outcome of this case is being watched closely by people who have filed suits in other provinces.

The lengthy delay in the Ontario case can most likely be attributed to the actions — or nonaction — of the former Conservative government. The lawyer for the Ontario claimants said that during the previous administration, government lawyers were instructed to have “no dialogue, no mediation.”

It is unclear how the current government will respond to the class action suits and whether it will attempt to negotiate an out-of-court settlement. Last week, the Crown’s request for an adjournment in the Ontario case was rejected. What is clear, however, is that many Indigenous children suffered immeasurably because of the Sixties Scoop. They lost their families, their culture and, in some cases, their lives. Like the Indian Residential School system, the Sixties Scoop is a terrible blot on Canada’s history, and it needs to be acknowledged and efforts made toward reconciliation for those who suffered.

Read Patrick Johnston’s article on this topic from November-December 1981.

Photo: A Sixties Scoop adoptee weeps at a gathering before a provincial apology. Sixty Scoop adoptees and supporters gather at the Manitoba Legislature to hear an apology from Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger in Winnipeg, Thursday, June 18, 2015. The Canadian Press/John Woods


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Patrick Johnston
Patrick Johnston was a program director at the Canadian Council on Social Development when he authored Native Children and the Child Welfare System (1983). He first wrote about the topic in an article entitled “Indigenous Children at Risk” (Policy Options, Nov.-Dec. 1981).

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