Justice

Canada's 'genocide'

Thousands taken from their homes need help

MICHAEL DOWNEY April 26 1999
Justice

Canada's 'genocide'

Thousands taken from their homes need help

MICHAEL DOWNEY April 26 1999

Canada's 'genocide'

Justice

Thousands taken from their homes need help

MICHAEL DOWNEY

Carla Williams was 4 when the authorities knocked on the door and took the terrified Manitoba native youngster away from her parents forever. It was 1968, and Williams was thrust into a white society where nobody spoke her native tongue. Three years of cultural confusion later, she was adopted by a family that then moved to Holland. There the young girl was permitted no contact with her grieving parents back in Canada. Subjected to emotional and sexual abuse, she had three babies by the age of 16—two of them, she says, by her adoptive father, and one was given up for adoption. Finally, after her descent into alcohol, drugs and prostitution, the Dutch government received an official request from Canada to have her returned. Williams left Amsterdam in 1989 at the age of 25, shout-

ing, “I’m going home!” She arrived back in Canada too late to meet the parents she had barely known: after the removal of three of their children, her native mother and father committed suicide.

Williams, now a saleswoman in Winnipeg, has had considerable success in turning her life around. But a new study being prepared for release next week sheds light on a tragically disruptive program that saw thousands of young natives removed from their families for three decades starting in the 1950s. Children from native communities in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario as well as Manitoba were routinely shipped to non-native foster homes or adoptive families far from their homes. Most of the 3,000 from Manitoba alone and many from the other provinces went to the United States, where placement agencies often received fees in the $15,000 to $20,000 range from the adoptive parents. One Manitoba judge has branded the child seizures “cultural genocide,” and they do seem to fall well within the United Nations post-Second World War definition of genocide, which includes “forcibly transferring children of [one] group to another group.”

Now, after almost a year of hearings, a report will be delivered this week to the funding body, a joint committee of aboriginal groups and a unique partnership of four Ontario government ministries. Prepared by an aboriginal social agency, Native Child and Family Services of Toronto, and Toronto-based consultants Stevenato and Associates and Janet Budgell, the report is expected to examine the history of what authorities called the “apprehensions” of native children, which continued into the early 1980s. The practice is sometimes referred to as the Sixties Scoop because the numbers peaked during that decade.

The seizures were carried out by child welfare agencies that insisted they were acting in the children’s best interest—simply moving them into a better environment than they were getting in their native parents’ home. Forced apprehensions of native children in fact began up to five

generations earlier with the creation of residential schools, which functioned more as alternative parenting institutions than educational facilities. Those strict boarding schools effectively incarcerated native children for 10 months of the year.

Unfortunately, many of the students returned from residential schools as distant, angry aliens, lacking emotional bonds with their own families. Having missed out on nurturing family environments, they were ill prepared to show affection or relate to their own children when they became parents—as most did at an early age. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government delegated responsibility for First Nations health, welfare and educational services to the provinces, while retaining financial responsibility for natives. With guaranteed payments from Ottawa for each child apprehended, the number of First Nations children made wards of the state skyrocketed. In 1959, only one per cent of Canadian children in custody were native; a decade later the number had risen to 40 per cent, while aboriginals made up less than four per cent of the population.

Ultimately, it became clear that the seizures were doing terrible damage to uncounted numbers of young natives. “It was perhaps—perhaps—done with the best of intentions,” says David Langtry,

current assistant deputy minister of Manitoba’s child and family services. “But once it became recognized that it was the wrong thing to do, changes were made to legislation.” A process introduced in 1988, he says, assures that an aboriginal child removed from a family will be placed in a new home according to strict priorities, turning to a non-native placement only as a last resort.

As previous investigations in other provinces have shown, the Sixties Scoop adoptions were rarely successful and many ended with children committing suicide. The new Ontario report will undoubtedly refer to formal repatriation programs already in place in Manitoba and British Columbia—as well as Australia, where there was a similar seizure of aboriginals—with a view to helping others return to Canada, find their roots and locate their families. The study will also set the stage for new programs aimed at healing the collective native pain and perhaps, in time, the deep-rooted anger.

Individual stories of the Sixties Scoop paint a heart-wrenching picture. Sometimes, whole families of status and nonstatus Indian or Métis children were separated from each other, never to meet again. Names were changed, often several times. They were shipped thousands of kilometres from their people and denied contact with their parents, siblings or communities or information about their heritage or culture. Some were enslaved, abused and raped. And no Canadian body has ever officially taken responsibility, or apologized, for the policies.

Maclean’s has learned that the new report will be soft on blame but frank about the extent of the tragedy still gripping native parents and plaguing the thousands of survivors who lost their names, language, families, childhood and, above all, their identities. It will seek faster access to adoption records to speed repatriation. However, Sylvia Maracle, a member of the committee of the umbrella group that funded the study, says repatriations are only a partial remedy. “We need to bring them back into the native circle,” she says, “in a way that is comfortable for them.”

The decision to commission the study recognized the bitterness felt by all native people, says Maracle, who is Mohawk.

“We are grieving,” she says,

“we are angry and we must do something to at least start the healing and in a holistic way.”

Joan Muir would agree. “I was taken away from my family because my grandparents were alcoholics,” says the Vancouver resident, now 33, “and placed with adoptive parents who were—as social workers had noted on my records prior to adoption—known alcoholics and racists.” Muir says she was raised to be ashamed of her native status. “It just hit me a couple of years ago, that it’s OK not to hide it anymore,” she says. “Now that I’m away from my adoptive parents, I’m allowed to be native.”

The report will also refer to the tragic story of Richard Cardinal, a northern Alberta Métis forcibly removed from his family at age 4. Over the next 13 years, he was placed in 28 homes and institutions. In one, he was beaten with a stick for wetting the bed. Another provided a bed just two feet wide in a flooded basement. One entire Christmas Day, while his adoptive family celebrated the holiday, Cardinal was kept outside in the cold, staring in. His suicide attempts began when he was 9. At his 16th foster home, aged 17, he nailed a board between two trees and hanged himself.

Toronto social worker Kenn Richard, a coauthor of the report, says it outlines the history of the seizures through the words of people who experienced them firsthand. But he feels strongly that the practice was only one part of a long history of wrongheaded and disastrous policies towards Canada’s native population. “It’s the legacy of child welfare in this country,” says Richard, “that

we have dysfunctional families and a deep anger among aboriginals.”

In the late ’70s, Manitoba’s native leaders rebelled against the permanent loss of their children. “This was cultural genocide,” concluded Manitoba family court Judge Edwin Kimelman, called on to investigate the seizures in 1982. “You took a child from his or her specific culture and you placed him into a foreign culture without any [counselling] assistance to the family which had the child. There’s something drastically and basically wrong with that.” That year, Manitoba banned out-of-province adoptions of

Seizures of aboriginal children continued into the 1980s

native children and overhauled its child welfare system. Native child welfare authorities were established across Canada.

The task of repairing the damage is still under way. Lizabeth Hall, who grew up in a native family and now heads the B.C. repatriation program, was shocked at the loss of identity among those removed from their native community. “People have called and asked, ‘Can you just tell me what kind of Indian I am?’ ” says Hall. “It made me cry. I’d like Canadians to know what happened and why. Non-natives always ‘justify’ their protection of natives; they don’t realize the racism in that.”

At a 1992 B.C. government hearing into the Sixties Scoop seizures, a First Nations elder addressed Canada’s history of “protecting” aboriginals. “For 30 years,” said the elder, “generations of our children, the very future of our communities, have been taken away from us. Will they come home as our leaders, knowing the power and tradition of their people? Or will they come home broken and in pain, not knowing who they are, looking for the family that died of a broken heart?” Those are questions that new repatriation and education programs could help answer. □