WINNIPEG FREE PRESS reported this week that Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson will host a two-day roundtable with twenty people who were part of something now known as the “Sixties Scoop.” For some of you this will be a new and unfamiliar phrase, and you’ll wonder why adopted aboriginal children are calling for an apology from the federal government of Canada. This essay will attempt to inform you on these and other points.
The phrase Sixties Scoop is over thirty years old and has its origins in a statistical overview of aboriginal children in the child welfare system, prepared by Patrick Johnston for the Canadian Council on Social Development. Native Children and the Child Welfare System revealed that aboriginal children were highly over-represented in the child welfare system, something Johnston felt was best characterized by the metaphor of a scoop.
As it happens, I first read about this Winnipeg roundtable while sitting in the Shingwauk Residential School Centre at Algoma University, in Sault Ste Marie. Years ago, the Sixties Scoop children, now of course adults, started to attend meetings and gatherings of former students in the Indian residential schools. Once in a while, one of them would stand up and say, “I was never in an Indian residential school, but everything you are talking about happened to me. That was my life, too.” For this reason, the aftermath of the Sixties Scoop is taking much the same shape as did the aftermath of the Indian Residential School System. Survivor groups are forming, and a class action lawsuit has been certified (the feds have appealed the certification). The former children of the Sixties Scoop want an apology and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of their own.
Early in the negotiations of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, in 2005, there was an effort by lawyers representing the Assembly of First Nations to broaden the scope of the agreement. As everyone involved in the negotiations well knew, residential schools were only one of many facets of federal Indian policy. There were day schools and adoptions, both of which pursued the same end as residential schools: the assimilation of Indian children into mainstream Canadian society. Today I had breakfast at Batchewana First Nation with one of the people involved in an effort to get Indian tuberculosis hospitals added to the list of officially recognized Indian residential schools. The system was more complex and broad than the average person realizes, and the very complexity was one reason the negotiations were restricted to the 139 Indian residential schools recognized by Canada.
Native children were typically adopted into non-native families, not only throughout Canada but in the United States as well. Some of the children were adopted by farming families as cheap labor, and were poorly treated. Some were treated well, some were abused in the manners familiar to the students of Indian residential schools. The scooped children, again like the children of the Indian residential school, lost all connection to their families, communities, languages, cultures and birth identities. Like former residential school students, they today speak of being between two worlds, accepted neither as “white” nor as “Indian.” Many of these adopted children ran into troubles that included drug addiction, violence, crime, imprisonment and suicide.
I’ve written elsewhere about James Tyman, whose autobiography Inside Out is a good representation of the experiences of many Sixties Scoop children. James was adopted into a stable, loving and well-off non-native middle class family, and yet he lived a turbulent life and died violently on the streets of Edmonton in his mid thirties. The child welfare system has evolved since that time, and much has been learned about the potential hazards of closed “inter-racial” adoption, particularly of native children from troubled backgrounds into the homes of middle class white families. While improvements have been made, aboriginal children are still disproportionately involved in the child welfare system, and the outcomes are far from optimal.
The Sixties Scoop has its roots in the 1940s, when the federal government began to receive recommendations from various sources urging a shift away from segregationist, residential schooling toward a policy of integration. The argument was that residential schools had failed to assimilate the Indian, and that placing native children into the mainstream public school system was a more logical approach. From 1946 to 1948, a Special Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons took testimony from concerned agencies and individuals in relation to Indian welfare. In 1947, a presentation to the Special Joint Parliamentary Committee, by the Canadian Welfare Council (CWC) and the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW), proposed changes to the Indian Act. They recommended extending provincial jurisdiction and services into federal Indian reserves. (Under the Indian Act, Indians and Indian lands are the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.) The CWC/CASW brief included a description of the dire and inadequate living conditions of aboriginal communities, arguing that “Indian children who are neglected lack the protection afforded under social legislation available to White children in the community.” This was the impetus behind “Section 88,” a 1951 amendment to the Indian Act which brought the reserves “within provincial regulatory legislation,” thereby making the Sixties Scoop possible.
The Indian Residential School System had deliberately severed the bonds of children to their families, cultures and communities, and now the provincial child welfare system was proposing to address the outcomes of this severance – lack of parenting skills, emotional trauma, impoverishment, shame, violence and addiction. But because the same underlying policy of assimilation informed both the residential school system and the child welfare system, adoption was more of a continuation of the past than it was a break from it. Indeed, the residential school and child welfare systems were interlaced. For decades, they operated in tandem, the residential schools operating as an extension of the child welfare system and the welfare system taking in the “overflow” of chronically under-resourced Indian residential schools.
Between 1962 and 1996, an estimated 16,000 children were removed, or scooped, from their families and communities. Johnson’s report disclosed that in less than ten years – from 1955 to 1964 – the representation of native children in British Columbia’s child welfare system had surged from under one percent to over thirty-four percent of all children in care. Aboriginal children represented roughly half of children in care in Alberta, 50-60% of the children in care in Manitoba, and between 60 and 70% of the children in care in Saskatchewan. Johnson estimated that aboriginal children were 4.5 times more likely than non-aboriginal children to be in the care of child welfare authorities.
Behind the issue of child welfare interventions is the Indian residential school and the systemic breakdown of traditional community structures, including aboriginal languages, cultures, spirituality and governance structures. Having undermined, displaced or appropriated the resources of aboriginal people, governments have imposed arrangements upon aboriginal people that do little more than perpetuate the fundamental problem of material, emotional and spiritual impoverishment. Like the residential school system, the child welfare system has left a legacy of pain and loss. Addressing this legacy will take years, and likely decades.