Tom Lyons, eye Weekly
January 13, 2000
For more than 20 years, Canada took native children from their
homes and placed them with white families. Now a lost generation
want its history back
When former Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart made her historic
apology to the aboriginal peoples of Canada on Jan. 8, 1998, she
singled out native residential schools as the most reprehensible
example of Canadas degrading and paternalistic Indian policies.
Designed to assimilate native children into English ways and strip
them of their language and culture, the schools also became notorious
for sickening physical and sexual abuse.
Though none would disagree with Stewarts condemnation of
residential schools, which were phased out in the 1960s, some wondered
why she didnt also apologize for the equally assimilationist
if less well-known strategy that followed
immediately in the schools wake: the widespread adoption of
aboriginal children out to non-native families in the 60s,
70s and early 80s.
Commonly referred to as the Sixties Scoop, the practice of removing
large numbers of aboriginal children from their families and giving
them over to white middle-class parents was discontinued in the
mid-80s, after Ontario chiefs passed resolutions against it
and a Manitoba judicial inquiry harshly condemned it.
The passage of the Child and Family Services Act of 1984 ensured
that native adoptees in Ontario would be placed within their extended
family, with another aboriginal family or with a non-native family
that promised to respect and nurture the childs cultural heritage.
Aboriginal peoples also began to play a much greater role in the
child welfare agencies that served them, and the numbers of native
adoptees in general began to decline as more stayed with their birth
However, the act also dictated that old birth records remain sealed,
unless both the birth parent and the child asked for them. This
has helped keep the period in darkness and frustrated attempts by
adoptees to learn about their roots. Those who now feel they were
victimized by the adoption process have an extremely difficult time
finding out who they are.
Donna Marchand, a 44-year-old Toronto lawyer, is launching a court
challenge against the Harris government to strike down the sealed
birth records provisions of the Child and Family Services Act.
An adopted child herself, she recalls being terrorized into denying
her origin: When I was about three-and-a-half, it started
coming to my attention that I was adopted. My cousins told me. I
was only three years old, but I was aware that I was different.
I just didnt fit in. I was getting called a little bastard.
And I asked my adopted mother what adoption meant. She said, Dont
ever say that again if your father hears you hell
kill you. Hed been sitting there in his drunken stupor.
Hed go on binges for days.
Ive lived my whole life being native because I was
called a squaw. I dont look white enough. And I was in working-class,
real WASP, downtown Toronto. I got called a squaw and Donna Wanna,
and I got tied to my share of trees and got my hair hacked off.
Marchands constitutional challenge involves Section 7 and
Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to her
lawyer, Jennifer Scott. Section 7 is the right to life, liberty
and security of person, says Scott. And Section 15 is
the equality rights. The 15 provisions are that adoptees are sort
of a group that is protected. But different communities of adoptees
are particularly affected, and it has a tremendous impact on communities
like native people where they dont know who
their mom and dad are, but theyre assimilated into families
that dont even know their culture, their history, their background.
It goes to who they are.
Just as the closing of the residential schools did not mean their
legacy of suffering instantly vanished, so the end of the Sixties
Scoop did not mean that all the native adoptees who were farmed
out to abusive or alienating non-native families suddenly found
themselves with a clear-cut identity or a secure place in society.
Indeed, many still found themselves not only torn between
two worlds, but literally unsure if they were native at all,
and not French or Italian as their adoptive parents claimed. Their
birth records were sealed and often amended to include the names
of the adoptive, rather than biological, parents. Moreover, their
adoption records were in many cases inaccurate, incomplete, falsified
or simply missing. As a result, many native adoptees who did try
to locate their birth parents or confirm their native status wasted
literally decades on failed searches or frustrating battles with
Children's Aid authorities or Indian Affairs officials.
Suzanne Bezuk, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community
and Social Services, says non-identifying information
can be made available to adult adoptees without their birth parents
consent. And for aboriginal peoples in particular, in the
case of native clients, the name of the band and reservation can
be provided. However, aboriginal status and band names were
seldom recorded on the original birth and adoption records in the
60s and 70s. So even this non-identifying information
is rarely available.
Marchand cannot even be sure whether her mother was in fact native.
All I know is, its very typical for native women, and
my Uncle Frank says were native. And my Aunt June looks native.
Me and my two sisters, we look real native. But my mother, she internalized
the shame of being a native woman. Look what she put down [on the
adoption record]: Ethnicity not stated. Its a
shame. A lot of native women dont say, because they were going
to lose their babies, and they wanted them to be adopted by good
people, and good people werent going to adopt little
Even now, researchers trying to determine exactly how many aboriginal
children were removed from their families during the Scoop say the
task is all but impossible because adoption records from the 60s
and 70s rarely indicated aboriginal status (as they are now
Those records which are complete, however, suggest the adoption
of native children by non-native families was pervasive, at least
in Northern Ontario and Manitoba. In her March, 1999 report, Our
Way Home: A Report to the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy
on the Repatriation of Aboriginal People Removed by the Child Welfare
System, author Janet Budgell notes that in the Kenora region
in 1981, a staggering 85 per cent of the children in care
were First Nations children, although First Nations people made
up only 25 per cent of the population. The number of First Nations
children adopted by non-First Nations parents increased fivefold
from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Non-First Nations families
accounted for 78 per cent of the adoptions of First Nations children.
Similarly, One Manitoba community of 800 people lost 150
children to adoption between 1966-1980, reports Budgell, who
prepared the report in conjunction with Native Child and Family
Services of Toronto.
Though it is rarely possible to determine precise numbers, the
practice of native adoption was widespread enough to be denounced
as cultural genocide by Edwin C. Kimelman, the presiding
judge at the 1985 Manitoba inquiry.
Many native adoptees suffered from not only geographical displacement
and cultural confusion but also emotional emptiness, violence, physical
and sexual abuse, and drug or alcohol abuse. My brother was
adopted at four years old, recalls one of the birth relatives
of native adoptees interviewed for Our Way Home. His
adoptive parents divorced when he was 12 and they gave him back
to the agency like returning merchandise. His life after that was
a living hell of abuse, violence and alcoholism. My brother hanged
himself at 20 years old.
Joanne Dallaire is a native adoptee who conducts healing sessions
for adoptees at the Anishnawbe Health Centre in Toronto. She too
was told by her adoptive family that she wasnt native. I
myself was raised by a non-native, and my whole history was denied.
Like in school, I was teased. You know how kids can be rather cruel
with each other, and I was called a squaw and stuff like that, and
when Id come home, Id be like crying and stuff, and
theyd say, Youre not Indian, youre French.
So you make sure you tell them youre French. It was
years and years of misinformation.
Dallaires attempts to find her birth mother or at least learn
the truth of her native status began early. The first time
I started searching was when I was 15, so that was 1966. But it
wasnt until I was an adult and on my own that I really began
to search. I didnt have any proof, either, until 1998. Anishnawbe
[native] people would come up to me and say, Oh, so you're
Anishnawbe. And Id say, No, no, Im French.
And I remember one man said to me I remember profoundly
he looked at me and he said, Someones
lying to you. Youre Anishnawbe.
I remember when I got the phone call from the social services
department. One of my first questions was: Is there native
in my background? So my mother wanted to know how Id
feel about it if I was, and I said, Very pleased, because
my whole spirituality and stuff was drawn to native culture. So
Ive come to find out that I am [First Nations]
to what degree, I dont know, because my mother is still very
evasive about my father. But at least I know part of my heritage
is Cree James Bay Cree."
Donna Marchands own search for her birth mother took 16 years
through the Ministry of Community and Social Services and the Adoption
Disclosure Record. When government officials finally contacted her
in the spring of 1999, they said her mother had died 26 years earlier.
Its a big area that most people never even thought of,
says Dallaire, because it goes so quietly and privately. Its
not as out there as the residential schools. And because everythings
secret, you can literally throw your hands in the air and go, Well?
You quickly run up against one wall and then another, so it takes
perseverance, like with Donna having to fight and fight again to
get what she wants. Most people get battle-weary and never win.
WAS IT GENOCIDE?
According to the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, Justice Kimelmans
description of the Sixties Scoop as cultural genocide is accurate.
It reads: Indigenous peoples have the collective right to
live in freedom, peace and security as distinct people with guarantees
against genocide or any other act of violence, including the removal
of indigenous children from their families and communities under
So why was the wholesale removal of aboriginal children not considered
a crime, or even a wrong, that the Minister of Indian Affairs felt
obliged to redress along with the residential school system?
The answer isnt that complicated, says Kenn Richard, director
of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto and the man who commissioned
the Our Way Home report. British colonialism has
a certain process and formula, and it's been applied around the
world with different populations, often indigenous populations,
in different countries that they choose to colonize, says
Richard. And that is to make people into good little Englishmen.
Because the best ally you have is someone just like you. One of
the ones you hear most about is obviously the residential schools,
and residential schools have gotten considerable media attention
over the past decade or so. And so it should, because it had a dramatic
impact that were still feeling today. But child welfare to
a large extent picked up where residential schools left off.
The lesser-known story is the child welfare story and its
assimilationist program. And you have to remember that none of this
was written down as policy: Well assimilate aboriginal
kids openly through the residential schools. And after we close
the residential schools well quietly pick it up with child
welfare. It was never written down. But it was an organic
process, part of the colonial process in general.