Sixties Scoop Survivors Take Canada to Court: Ep 25
SYNOPSIS: The so-called ‘Sixties Scoop’ removed thousands of Aboriginal kids from a number of provinces over that decade and beyond. But, this week, it was an Ontario court that heard the latest phase of a class action suit seeking compensation for what survivors say Canada denied them: rightful access to “Aboriginal customs, traditions and practices.” Our guest is Raven Sinclair, associate professor of social work at the University of Regina, and a Scoop survivor herself.
Rick Harp: Hello, I’m Rick Harp. This is MEDIA INDIGENA.
This week on the program, survivors of the Sixties Scoop. If families form the bedrock of Indigenous peoples, the Canadian government has seemingly devoted decades to their fracture and fragmentation.
And, as child advocate Cindy Blackstock notes, were we to label the forced institutionalization of children as young as four years old into far away residential schools as ‘phase one’ of that fracturing, the subsequent removal of generations of kids into the homes of non-Aboriginal strangers in the 1960s could be called ‘phase two.’
For those separated as children, it could often mean alienation as adults, a situation that in turn made it challenging to raise families of their own—yet another cycle on the wheel of cultural rupture. The so-called Scoop removed thousands of kids from a number of provinces, but this week it was an Ontario court that heard the latest phase of a class action suit launched on behalf of survivors. They’re seeking compensation for what they say was denied them by Canada: rightful access to “Aboriginal customs, traditions and practices.”
My guest today has more than a passing familiarity with all this: not only was Raven Sinclair herself taken from her birth family at a young age, she studies the Scoop as an associate professor of social work with the University of Regina.
Raven Sinclair, welcome to MEDIA INDIGENA.
Raven Sinclair: Thank you, it’s nice to be here.
Harp: Now I have to confess, I myself find it a real challenge to convey in words the far-reaching, collective and personal impacts of the Sixties Scoop because anything I might say feels, frankly, inadequate. How do you approach it?
Sinclair: Usually, I just suggest to people that they imagine what it would be like if they as children were removed from their families, never to see them again as children. Removed from everything familiar, everything that they have known and been comforted by. And not only that, but to imagine if they were placed in a different ethnic group. So, for many, a different language, different culture, customs, beliefs, worldview.
And for people that can’t imagine that, then I suggest that they imagine “Okay, well, if you have children, how would you feel if your child was removed suddenly and no explanation was given and you didn’t have any recourse.”
Harp: That’s the personal impact. What about the collective impact? How was it manifested itself in social terms, in economic terms, in health terms?
Sinclair: In many respects, the Scoop—or I call it, the Indigenous child removal system, because the Scoop itself refers mostly to the ’60s, of course—but the removal of children through the child welfare system actually began as early as, I’m understanding now, the late ’40s. It gained speed in the ’50s and then the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s were the time of real mass apprehensions and that was the time when so many were adopted.
Now that system, it hasn’t ceased. It’s still happening. So currently we have this incredible over-representation. But when we look at the Indigenous child removal system, or the Sixties Scoop, focusing on the Sixties Scoop, it’s a continuation of the assimilation project of the federal government that started with the residential schools. And they had this idea that if they took children away from families—and this hails back to the Jesuit missionaries who said, “We have to remove children from their families, because they’re too close and the people love their children too much, and if we’re going to make them into Christians, then we have to separate them.” So this was sort of the philosophy behind the residential schools, was to remove the children and forbid the speaking of language, forbid any cultural practices.
And the idea according to Duncan Campbell Scott was then the immersion, the complete immersion of Indigenous people into the Canadian body politic. So one big melting pot, the melting pot theory. The implications or the ramifications of that, the outcomes, have been really disastrous. There’s theory that talks about ‘if you want to destroy a species (or, in our case, a group of people), then you go after the nest.’ So the focus was on the children, with the idea that down the road we would all be assimilated.
The underlying motive for this of course has always been economic. It’s been our land and resources. And so, if we no longer exist as Indigenous people, then our land and our resources are basically free for the taking. The residential schools, and then the Indigenous child removal system, they serve that same purpose and I think that the outcomes are really quite similar. There’s some differences; there’s some distinct differences in terms of individual experiences and consequences.
There have been some positive experiences and, thankfully, that’s sort of the idea behind adoption, that children are placed into a family as if born to them and the family treats them as one of their own, and it’s a loving, supportive, nurturing environment. But, for some reason, from my experience, from my research, and I’ve met hundreds of adoptees, the vast majority experienced trauma and turmoil, abuse in all different forms and most discouraging was that many experienced intra-familial racism. So, racism directed at them from the people that were supposed to be their family members.
Harp: As you’ve pointed out, the name Sixties Scoop is somewhat misleading in terms of chronology. Is it somewhat misleading in other ways in terms of how we define it?
Sinclair: It is in a way. It came about… and it’s important how it came about. So, a social work academic by the name of Patrick Johnson did a really good report in the early ’80s, in 1983, where he was examining the Indigenous child welfare system and he was talking to a B.C. social worker by the name of Bridget Moran who worked as a child welfare worker in B.C. in the ’60s. Bridget became appalled at what she was witnessing in terms of the treatment, at the inequitable treatment of Indigenous children in the child welfare system there, and she began to resist and protest.
Of course, she was let go from her job, but she then became a staunch, an ardent advocate for Indigenous people, and an advocate for change in the child welfare system there. She wrote a book called A Little Rebellion where she outlined some of the atrocities that she had seen. And what she said was that ‘We went into communities and we were scooping these children without, basically, without any reason or any justification. She said that, no matter how the B.C. government cloaked their intentions in child welfare jargon, she said the B.C. government was the main contributor to child abuse in the province. And this is in the late 1960s. So you can imagine how she was silenced and vilified.
Patrick took that quotation of hers and just referred to it as the child welfare scoop. So that’s how the term has come to be and because there were so many adoptions in the ’60s, that’s how the term came about. Sometimes people will say, “Well, I don’t fit into that because I was adopted in the ’70s,” which is now why we’re using the term ‘Indigenous child removal system’ because it does span from primarily from the ’50s to the present.
Another way that the Sixties Scoop, that term might be a little bit… it’s a bad fit, is that in many instances children weren’t scooped, they were relinquished or apprehended due to what social workers called ‘neglect.’ Now, neglect is a really subjective sort of assessment. I mean I could go into a family and, if I’m in a bad mood that day, I might say, “Oh, this is a neglectful situation.” Or if somebody is from a different cultural group and they have different cultural practices, I may reach a conclusion that this is neglect because they’re not doing things the way that I do them. So ‘neglect’ is a little bit problematic.
But in some instances where children were relinquished, we also have to look at the greater sociopolitical, economic context of that relinquishment. So at the time of the Sixties Scoop, we’re coming out of five decades of residential schools, and the consequences of that have been documented far and wide. And so we know that there were social issues in communities and people coming out, going through these institutions and being basically just turned out on the street at the age of 16, and then trying to parent when they themselves were raised in what we call “total institutions.” And a total institution is one that is designed to change individuals at their most fundamental way of being, I guess. In terms of Indigenous people, that was language, culture, family systems, social systems, traditional knowledge, and the list goes on.
When I think about relinquishment in the ’60s and ’70s, and I think about my mother, my mother didn’t relinquish us. But she also didn’t have any… we didn’t have the same social safety net in the ’60s. She didn’t have the supports that she needed after my father died. And so she’s a young woman with eight children. If she had relinquished us, I would see that in the context of the social inequities that Indigenous people were confronted with at the time. So sometimes, I think, can we really even call it ‘relinquishment’ when people are in an impossible social, political and economic situation?
Harp: A number I keep hearing is some 20,000 children removed overall, and I’m wondering, given the way we’ve been talking about this, does that mean the number is actually conservative and could be even larger?
Sinclair: Well, I believe it is conservative. In my early research, the only number that I could reach was 11,123, and that’s the available Indian Affairs records in the Royal Commission report from 1996. And so, that’s the number of Status Indigenous children that they had recorded at that time. So we know there’s been more since then. The other problem with that is that many Indigenous children, their records were changed. They were labeled as Métis or non-Status, probably in order to enhance their adoptability. I’m a Status Indian, but I was recorded as Métis/non-Status, as were all my siblings.
So I grew up thinking I was Métis, but, interestingly enough, when 1985 came around and Bill C-31 came in, and I had the opportunity to reacquire my Status I applied and sure enough, I was on the adoption list. So they had me recorded, even though in my adoption papers I wasn’t recorded as Status Indian, or eligible to be a Status Indian.
In terms of the numbers, then, there was also an Ontario social worker who bragged all over the place that she herself was responsible for placing 10,000 children in Ontario alone in her career that spanned 20 years.
So, yes, I think that 11,123 is not accurate. I think 20,000 is not accurate.
Harp: I have to say, I’m still struck and digesting that phrase, “enhance their adoptability.” That… oh my god.
Sinclair: And, you know, I was a… I am a social worker. I was a front-line social worker. I worked in adoptions. And, y’know, I saw this over and over again. I mean, it wasn’t any explicit or written policy, but social workers, y’know, I think that agencies develop certain cultures. There’s a certain sort of culture or approach that has developed over time when it comes to Indigenous children. And from what I know at this point, children were made to seem as least Indigenous as possible. And, in many instances, the records were completely wrong.
Harp: Now, just like residential schools, not everyone is convinced that the Sixties Scoop automatically and inevitably made every kid worse off. They might even cite your example: after all, you’re a professor, you have a PhD. I’m curious how often do you hear that, and how do you respond?
Sinclair: I hear it a fair bit. It’s, like, “You did fine, so what’s the problem?” Well, y’know, I almost didn’t survive. And I think the reason why I did is because I had a loving father, a loving adoptive father who, once he discovered what had been happening in my life, became a staunch ally, and very loving, and re-parented me as an adult.
The other thing is, I had friends who cared about me and said, “Raven, you need help. [laughs] You need to do something here.” And so, I started therapy as a young adult and spent my… basically the entire decade between 24 and 34 in therapy, in group work, doing intensive healing work. Because otherwise, I was going to commit suicide. I attempted as a teenager. I just really didn’t see any purpose in being on this earth.
So, yes, I’ve done well, but it took a lot of work and I was fortunate that I had key people in my life that were there to support me. I guess the other thing that I think is, when I think about that, I say, “Well, would you say the same thing to a Holocaust survivor?” And, y’know, someone might respond, “Well, that’s a little bit extreme.”
But the reality is, when you look at the residential schools, children were tattooed, their heads were shaved, they were given uniforms; it was a total institution, the same as the concentration camps. Children were starved, or children were experimented on. I mean, horrific things happened, so it’s not a stretch. So my response would be, “Well, would you say the same thing about a Holocaust survivor, that, just because they had that horrific, traumatic experience, that it must have been okay because they survived and they then went on to do well in life?
Harp: Let’s turn to this lawsuit in Ontario, which is actually one of a number of Scoop-related lawsuits being pursued across the country. As far as you understand it, what’s the case they hope to make?
Sinclair: Well, the case is that, as I understand it, is that the forced removal of Indigenous children is, first of all, an act of genocide. Canada is a signatory to the UN Convention on Genocide, and Article… I think it’s 2E, states that the removal of children and the placement of those children into another ethnic group constitutes genocide. So that’s sort of the human rights foundation. In terms of the outcomes, it has to do with the forced, I guess, removal or destruction of our links, our ties to family, community and culture.
Harp: And so what has Canada’s response been to this so far, to this class action suit?
Sinclair: I don’t actually know the details. I haven’t read, I didn’t read, Canada’s response and I didn’t read the justification for their appeal (which was denied), in order to have the class action certified. But if I were to speculate, based on what I know, it would be that it was good intentions. Yeah, that the idea behind the removal of Indigenous children was for their own protection and that the intentions were good. So, once children were placed in adoptive homes, that then it was sort of out of their control.
Harp: The stated goal of the class action is to remedy or redress the denial of “access to Aboriginal customs, traditions and practices.” And the specific redress being sought is “money or other benefits.” What sorts of non-monetary benefits would you like to see come out of this?
Sinclair: I get asked this question a lot. And people kind of go, “Well, it’s just Indians wanting more money.” [laughs] As if we’re flowing in it. But it is a legal system. It is a western legal system, and the compensation for wrongs is invariably financial.
So, to me it’s not about money, it’s about compensation for a wrong, my individual circumstance. My mother had no idea what was going on. She never consented to anything. She didn’t relinquish me. She tried to get me back, and was not given any information or recourse. She just got a notice in the mail one day, about a year after I’ve been apprehended, telling her to come to court. She didn’t know what it was for, and she found out then it was a hearing to make me… to approve the adoption into my family.
Sinclair: So, what I lost from that, can’t ever be compensated for. There’s no compensation for losing my family, for losing my community, my extended kinship network. For losing my culture, for not having access to my language.
Beyond that, y’know, for me, because I had those key supports in my life, I was able to access healing. I mean, that was hard work. I can’t make any bones about that. But I’d like to see other people have those supports.
I mean, I was fortunate I had good health care, I had good jobs, so I could pay out of pocket for therapists, and to do group work and that sort of thing. A lot of people don’t have that.
In my mind, I think that if people had—the benefits really would be about providing a whole sort of series of mental health programs, services and supports for adoptees.
Harp: Now, redressing cases like these, they can take different forms including the manner in which it’s distributed. As I understand the Ontario case, roughly $85,000 is being sought for each individual survivor of the Scoop. But you could argue that, I think pretty easily, that their families, communities and nations also suffered lasting injuries because of this. Yet so far, I don’t think there’s been any mention of such collective compensation.
In talking to other adoptees, I know some regard that as problematic, and I’m wondering what you think: what should we be seeking to remedy here, and by what path is that best achieved?
Sinclair: Hm. That’s a difficult one, and I think it might best be answered by a lawyer.
In my instance, it’s an interesting question because I know that my family was affected by my adoption, and the adoption of my two younger siblings. All of my siblings were in foster care or adopted, but they were older and so they ran back home pretty quickly. Are they interested in compensation for that? I wouldn’t know how to sort of legally structure that. I’m not a lawyer.
The other thing is that, in terms of the outcomes, it ruptured my family to the extent that I know my siblings and I love them, but we don’t have a relationship. I don’t have a relationship with any of them. So, should we be compensated for that? It’s a tricky one for me.
And that’s where I say there’s no compensation that can ever make up for that. I mean, I’m 54 and I don’t have a relationship with my siblings because I wasn’t raised with them. How do we compensate for that? Money isn’t going to do that.
But at the same time, when I was young before I went in to my healing journey, I mean the world was basically an obstacle for me because of my emotional, mental and psychological state. So again, I go back to, for me as an adoptee, and for many that I know, having those supports in place are really critical because life becomes a very treacherous terrain when you’re altered, when you’ve been harmed at a really core level.
And I think that, y’know, compensation might help for people to be able to do some things they’ve never been once able to. Let’s them to go to school, maybe travel a little bit. I’m not really sure how… what it would do for other people.
For me, I don’t need compensation, but I do know that there was a wrong committed in my case and I’m certainly willing to accept acknowledgment of that, to accept redress.
Harp: As a professor of social work, you’re obviously well aware, and you’ve spoken throughout about this, that, as we speak the number of Indigenous kids taken into care today is massively out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. If it was truly the case back in the ’60s that non-native people didn’t know any better about the impact of separating kids from their families and communities, what explains why we’re effectively seeing the same outcomes now 50 years later?
Sinclair: Because it’s the same system.
I mean, the system was set up, I believe was set up, on a racist ideology and that many of those biases, those prejudices, they still play out. Like, when I think back to the ’60s and I think about well-intentioned, upper middle class, white social workers going into reserve communities, they probably would have gone through a little bit of a culture shock, and assumed that this was neglect.
And, sort of, to give you a more real example, when I was first adopted. I learned very quickly that I wasn’t allowed to get dirty. So, I would be sent out to play and I’d be playing outside, but it became a really problematic thing because I wanted to play in the dirt. I wanted to do things that kids do, but I wasn’t allowed to get dirty. Because dirt in my white Anglo-Saxon Protestant context meant bad parenting, it meant neglect, and it meant children were sort of out of control.
And that’s a very healthy thing, you know, we understand that now, right? ‘Let kids play in the dirt, they get exposed to microbes’ [laughs]: when western science says it’s good, then all of a sudden, it’s okay. I mean, it’s a real misunderstanding in terms of different ways of approaching child-rearing and just kind of ways of being in the world.
Yeah, I believe that it’s the same system, the same biases, the same prejudices that come into play. But I also think that we are an economy: that our children have become a commodity. Because when I look at Saskatchewan and B.C. and Alberta and Manitoba—less Ontario: I think Ontario is at around 40% of all the kids in care are Indigenous—but Saskatchewan it’s 80% and we represent less than, I think, 10% of the population. You know, that sort of a statistical improbability. So what else is going on, that that is happening?
And really when I look at it, it’s like, in the ’60s, the federal government implemented the Canada Assistance Plan, which allowed for transfer payments to provinces to take over social services. And, y’know, within the decade, 15 years before that time, is when social work programs were starting to develop. And so, we have a relatively new profession, and, in some sense, it’s like they needed jobs. And as the profession grew, all of a sudden, interestingly enough, we see this exponential increase in the number of Indigenous children in care.
And so I think that the system, the Indigenous child removal system, is perpetuating itself. Because if our children… I hear so often lately of families who want their children, parents who want their children and are actually completely capable of taking care of the children, and yet the rules and regulations in place aren’t allowing for that to happen.
The individual social worker can say, “It’s out of my hands because here’s the rules and regulations I have to follow.” But there’s a lot of social workers out there who would be out of a job if the system was completely revamped. Now it’s like the system is so deeply entrenched in our Canadian system that to change it’s going to be really, really difficult and there will be resistance to it. Clearly, when I look at those statistics and how improbable they are, how disproportionate they are, there’s something going on here that really needs to be uncovered and examined.
So, in 1985 in Manitoba, Justice Edwin Kimelman initiated an inquiry (which is now called the Kimelman Inquiry). And what he found, and he looked at hundreds of case files, and he said the case files were atrocious. And what the case files speak to is the individual social worker’s actions and decision making. He said they were fraught with untruths, inequities and in some instances deliberate lies. And he said that what the Manitoba system amounted to was genocide and he placed a moratorium on the adoption of Indigenous children.
And I have seen in my travels, I actually saw the A-list for Manitoba, and I saw, in one community, almost every single child born between 1970 and ’72 had been apprehended and removed from this community.
And I work with a community in B.C. called Splatsin. They’re actually the only [First Nations] community in Canada that has legal jurisdiction over their children. But they had a bus, a social worker brought a bus, into their community in the late ’60s, and she apprehended 38 children in one weekend. So that tells me, I know that there weren’t 38 social workers in there doing careful assessments. They just went in, and somebody made the decision that this needed to happen, and so it did.
Kimelman said this is genocide, it has to stop. He placed a moratorium, and other provinces didn’t place the moratorium, but they followed suit. There was a real sort of slowdown of the adoption of Indigenous children, and then policies were created around consulting with bands and getting community consent when a child was going to be adopted.
So we see a little dip. I saw a little dip, in the adoption numbers just after 1985, but then they started to increase again. What’s happening now, I’m finding—and I’m not sure where this shift happened; I’ll find out soon because we’re doing the research—but what has happened in the interim is that many Indigenous children are still being scooped and apprehended and relinquished, but they’re spending time in foster care.
In 1983, there was a case in Manitoba called Racine and Woods, and in that case what happened was the foster family… the mother wanted the child back, but the foster family wanted to keep the child. And it went all the way to the Supreme Court. At the Supreme Court, the Justice, she said, when we look at the best interest of Indigenous children, we have to consider attachment and bonding to the foster family. If a child’s been in care for a long time then that attachment and bonding is going to take precedence over culture.
And this particular case is really problematic because it’s just not true, for one. But it’s been used over and over and over again. And now what I’m understanding is that foster families… and social workers are telling foster families, “If you want an Indigenous child, don’t go through the adoption route, just foster a child that you want and then you can keep them because you can just use agency legislation and agency policies to keep that child because eventually, what will happen is it will go to court, the court will then use this case Racine and Woods.” And subsequent cases have cited that one, and the child invariably goes to the non-Indigenous family.
To me, that’s legislative scooping of our children and so that’s… I’m calling it the foster care scoop, which is sort of the era we’re in right now.
Harp: And it seems to go against what I read and hear about how it’s in the best interest of the child to be connected to their culture. And they’re sort of put in this false opposition, almost.
I’ve written a chapter on this and published it in American book, and I’m going to find a way to publish it in Canada so that people can use it.
In my research about this particular case, Racine and Woods, is that it’s wrong on two counts. First of all, bonding and attachment are concepts. They’re mental constructs, so they can’t be measured. As a social worker, I can go into a family and say, well this child looks like they’re attached because they’re smiling, they’re happy but the reality is bonding and attachment are really contingent upon family environment, home environment. Actually bonding and attachment can increase over time but it can also decrease over time if the home environment is abusive or chaotic. And that’s based on research.
The other thing is that she says culture abates over time, the important of culture abates over time. In my research and in my dissertation and in my talks with Indigenous adoptees across Canada, is that culture becomes more important over time. Ninety-nine per cent, maybe more, of adoptees that I have talked to, worked with, whose narratives I’ve read, have re-acculturated because that was fundamental to their a sense of self as an Indigenous person. For me, when I was younger, I didn’t really … I was just interested in fitting into my family. But I knew I was an Indigenous person and, as I got older, I started to go, well, what does this mean to be Indigenous?
And so it’s logical for human beings to want to know where we came from, and who we are, and who our people are. And this is true for adoptees as well. So I’m not sure what this Justice was thinking when she said that culture abates over time, because it doesn’t. Almost every single adoptee, with one or two or three exceptions, has re-acculturated to their Indigenous family, community and culture, and, by doing that, have survived and started on their healing journey.
This case is so problematic and I think it’s dangerous.
Harp: I’m very appreciative of the time you’ve spent with me today and I wonder on what note you’d like to end this conversation, because I think we’ve really thoroughly unpacked the challenges in this terrain. But, I’m wondering, as someone who’s lived this, who studies this, what keeps you going? What buoys your spirit or your intellect when it comes to trying to move away from what seems to be a vicious cycle?
Sinclair: My daughter is a huge inspiration. As she’s grown up, I’ve projected some of my experiences on to her and, y’know, I can relax now knowing that she’s not going to be apprehended, and she’s not going to have to go through what I went through.
But I think the note that I’d like to end on is that, just because someone survives a trauma—it doesn’t matter how horrific that trauma is or how, y’know, if it’s a minor trauma—just because someone survives a trauma and thrives, doesn’t mean that that justifies the trauma in the first place. That’s really, really important, I think, in terms of these lawsuits.
The survivors are just so resilient. I mean, I love working in this area because I’ve had a chance to work with some really amazing people, and we share a similar language in terms of our experiences, and we share camaraderie and support. For many of us, it’s the closest thing to siblings that we’ll ever have. Because we didn’t have that.
Many of us are pretty darn angry. But I think it’s a righteous anger and it’s about, “This was wrong, and we’re going to do everything, and we’re not going to stop, until this has been redressed, so that it never happens again.”
And so, this takes our fight from the Sixties Scoop, from the Indigenous child removal system of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, into the present because the over-representation really concerns all of us. And we’ve seen that it’s a fundamentally flawed system and it needs to stop. And we’re just not going to stop until we see change.
That’s the note I’d like to end on. Thanks.
Rick Harp: Raven Sinclair, thank you. Take care.
Sinclair: You too.
Harp: Raven Sinclair is an associate professor of social work at the University of Regina. You can find her on Twitter @justsaying2016, all one word, that’s @justsaying2016.
Now, we’re on Twitter too, along with Facebook and the YouTube. You can find them all at mediaindigena.com/contact. Tell us what you think of this week’s episode: send us an email rick[at]mediaindigena.com.
That’s it for this week, I’m Rick Harp. Ekosi.
Our theme is ‘nesting’ by birocratic.