Opinion / Commentary
Thousands of indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes as recently as 1985.
By: Carol Goar
The 60s Scoop was carried out so stealthily that it remained an ugly secret for half a century.
But now the secret is getting out. The victims are stepping forward. The wheels of justice are creaking into action.
Like most baby boomers, I grew up knowing nothing about the 60s Scoop. I thought Canada was an enlightened nation.
Recently I started hearing whispers, rumours and anecdotes in the aboriginal community but nothing solid enough to report. Last Thursday, Stan Beardy, regional chief of Ontario’s 133 First Nations, told me the whole story. He urged me to spread it widely.
Between 1955 and 1985, thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their homes by child welfare authorities without the consent of their parents. Under the cover of child protection, they were “adopted out” to white families or placed in nonindigenous foster homes. To ensure they never came back, death certificates were issued expunging any record of their aboriginal existence.
Beardy can’t say exactly how many children were scooped. No one knows. The Assembly of First Nations estimates 16,000 infants and children were uprooted. Some aboriginal groups put the number as high as 20,000.
Most of the adoptees — now in their 40s and 50s — are unaware of their aboriginal heritage and have no connection to their biological parents — exactly as Ottawa and the provinces intended.
Luckily a few remember. One of them is Marcia Brown Martel, who was scooped at the age of eight. Social workers told her parents she was mentally handicapped. Before she left, her biological sister told her never to forget that she was a member of the Beaverhouse First Nation near Kirkland Lake.
Brown Martel clung to that fragment of knowledge, living as the daughter of a white family in Trent River, 180 km. east of Toronto. She subsequently moved to Texas with her adoptive mother. Today she is chief of the Beaverhouse First Nation and the initiator of a class action lawsuit against the government of Canada. The charge: Cultural genocide.
Brown Martel doesn’t want money or an apology. Her sole objective is to ensure that what happened to her never happens to another aboriginal child. “We (the members of the class action) want this enshrined in Canadian law and enforced. We want Canada to protect aboriginal children and all children,” she told the Star.
In September, the class action was certified to go ahead by the Ontario Supreme Court. But the Attorney General of Canada appealed the decision, arguing Ottawa was not responsible for the 60s Scoop (technically it was executed by the provinces) and should not be subject to punitive action. The hearing took place last week. “The government has 12 lawyers fighting us,” Beardy said. A ruling is expected in the New Year.
Justice will not come quickly or easily. But the chiefs will press on regardless of the obstacles. If Ottawa blocks this lawsuit, Brown Martel has vowed to launch a new one.
What is at stake, says Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, is nothing less that the modern-day equivalent of the Indian residential schools. “Placing our children in nonindigenous environments and households was a way for the government to continue with its assimilation policy.”
First Nations are taking action on three fronts:
They want a legal acknowledgment that the Crown failed in its duty to protect the culture and identity of aboriginal children, causing lasting psychological and emotional damage.
They want the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to condemn Canada for violating the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires signatories to respect the heritage traditions, language and culture of indigenous children
And they want to rip away the cloak of secrecy behind which the government has hidden for decades and expose the hypocrisy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to survivors of Indian residential schools. He told Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples “there is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools to ever again prevail,” even as his government concealed the second chapter of the racist saga.
The harm cannot be undone. But Canada can make a clean and complete break from its shameful past.