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June 24, 2024

A First Nations Perspective 6

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

The Sixties Scoop

"In the case of Aboriginal mothers, stories of government involvement in family life often go back generations. The legacy of removing children from their families and communities, first through the residential schools, and then through the child protection system, continues to impact the lives of these mothers, their children and their grandchildren."

Pivot Legal Society, Broken Promises

The term "Sixties Scoop" was coined by Patrick Johnston, author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. It refers to the mass removal of Aboriginal children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands.

This period is particularly unique in Canadian history because the highest numbers of adoptions took place in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, and in many instances First Nations children were taken from their homes and communities and adopted out to non-native families.

Statistics from the Department of Indian Affairs reveal that a total of 11,132 status Native children were adopted between the years of 1960 and 1990. It is believed that the numbers are a lot higher, though, because many status children were not recorded as 'status' after being adopted. More troubling is that 70% of these children who were adopted into non-native homes also suffered a 70% breakdown in their new homes, and ended up going back into CAS (Children's Aid Society) care.

The practice of First Nations children being adopted into non-native households led to intense identity consequences for those who became the 'product' of interracial adoption. It was something the Canadian government did not consider the consequences of. It is now widely accepted that First Nations children's suffering did not vanish with the closing of residential schools. This pain was carried forward inter-generationally into new circumstances and communities, if not completely different countries or provinces, as in my case.

Researchers trying to determine how many First Nations children were taken from their families during the Scoop say the task is all but impossible, because adoption records from the 1960s and 1970s rarely indicated aboriginal status (as they are now required to). Records that are complete suggest that the adoption of First Nations children by non-native families was most pervasive in Northern Ontario and Manitoba.

In Our Way Home: A Report to the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy: Repatriation of Aboriginal People Removed By the Child Welfare System, Janet Budgell states that in the Kenora region in 1981 "A staggering 85 percent of the children in care were First Nation children, although First Nation people made up only 25 percent of the population. The number of First Nation children adopted by non-First Nation parents increased fivefold from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Non-First Nation families accounted for 78 percent of the adoptions of First Nations children, an expression of benevolence that has turned into a national tragedy, according to Dr. Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, a former professor of the University of Toronto. (Wesley-Esquimaux: 2011)

The Canadian state has long had an assimilation practice in which large numbers of First Nations children were removed from their families, and adopted into families of non-native parents. The highest peak of adoption occurred in the 1960s through the early 1980s, known as the Sixties Scoop. Interracial adoption created a deep and unhealed pain because it represented the "most comprehensive assault on Indigenous families following that of sending Indigenous children to residential schools" (Carriere, 2010:18).

My experience with the Sixties Scoop began when my three siblings and I were removed from my biological mother's care in the early 1970s in Winnipeg, Manitoba and put into a foster group home. We were taken from our mother's care when she did not follow the order of protection against our father, and allowed him into her apartment with stolen goods. While my mother was being brought to the police station, she asked the police, "Who is going to take care of my kids?"

They told her, "Oh, don't worry, we will find someone to take care of them."

When my mother was released from jail a few days later, it was only then that she learned that child welfare officials had apprehended us all, and she could not visit us. While my older brother was put into an institution due to developmental issues, my biological sister and I were adopted out together at the age of three and four into a non-native home in Ontario. The whereabouts of my younger brother is still unknown to this day.

From the beginning, my sister and I were obviously different from the rest of our adoptive family, and the neighborhood in which we lived. In our first couple of years, our situation seemed okay, but once we started school, the abuse and racism began. The abuse was not only physical; it was emotional, mental and spiritual. We were forced to embrace a religion we were unfamiliar with and go to church every week. We were separated from our culture, and I recall only going to one pow wow in my childhood. We had to behave perfectly and never be out of line. Food was used as punishment. Our adoptive parents believed that because we were First Nations we would become fat and that it was in our genes.

This obsession with fat led to my being starved on a daily basis, locked in the backyard with the family pets and crying because food was being withheld from me. When I was allowed to eat, I was given extremely bland foods or small portions. My sister would convince me late at night to go down to the kitchen and get us some food; even though it meant a beating if I was caught. The physical abuse was a part of my daily life, and so was the emotional abuse. I was called insulting and degrading names and towards the end of my time with my adoptive family, I became a virtual prisoner because I was locked in my bedroom, and only allowed to go to school and back. My sister and I grew up without affection and warmth, and have struggled in our own ways well into adulthood.

I reacted to the abuse I suffered at the hands of my adoptive parents by acting out and running away from home. At the age of ten, I was taken to a girl's residence, and within months of staying there, I soon found myself sitting in a courtroom and hearing the words "You are not wanted," and I was returned to the child welfare system until I aged out of foster care at seventeen years old. I also became separated from my sister for seven years, an emotional pain that I tried really hard to keep hidden within.

I did not know that a lot of the inner turmoil and pain I had gone through was in part due to the breakdown of my interracial adoption, and a part of confusion that many other First Nations children in similar situations felt. I learned about the Sixties Scoop and the ensuing difficulties of First Nations people when I returned to post-secondary education at the University of Toronto in my early thirties, and specialized in Aboriginal Studies.

Many First Nations children grew up without knowing their culture, language and traditions, and this forced removal from their families and communities had many consequences. It was through the government's colonialist policy that many First Nations children were made to feel that there was 'something wrong' with them, and this led to an accumulation of issues while growing up: a loss of identity, separation from birth family members, reunions with family members in later years, difficulties surrounding reunions, not knowing their cultures, languages and traditions and finally having to learn the ways of their people often from outside their adopted families and communities.

The Canadian state had wanted assimilation; instead adoption policies caused more problems that Canada was not capable of handling. In 1983, H.J. Green undertook a study on the outcome of trans-racial fostering and the adoption of Native children. This study concluded that children adopted into non-Native families have a very poor life outcome. Whether this is due to problems which existed before placement, to maladjustment in the adoption itself, or to a combination of factors is not clear. Olive Patricia Dickason said, "For aboriginal peoples the experiences of externally enforced assimilation was a national one, as were its consequences: rising rates of substance abuse, with physical and health problems; psychological and sexual abuse; broken families, community dysfunction and soaring suicide rates." (The Globe and Mail, 1998). "'Killing the Indian in the child' resulted in adults disconnected from their communities, becoming walking time bombs, who in turn mistreated their own children in a cycle that has passed from generation to generation." (The Globe and Mail, 1998)

I learned about Canadian policy and how it has largely been paternalistic and that its underlying goal was to guide First Nations peoples into assimilation with Canadian ideology. In learning about First Nations peoples and history, I learned about child welfare and the role it has played in the history of adoption within First Nations communities. For the first time I realized my story was not unique, and that other First Nations struggle with a lot of the same pain.

As a ward of the state, I felt an immense loss inside that I could not really explain to others around me. In essence, when speaking of the loss I felt from being taken from my birth family and then my failed adoption and its effects, I felt worthless. I felt that if my own biological parents and subsequently my adoptive parents did not want me than there was something fundamentally wrong with me. The journey that ensued was a rocky one at best. I became that ticking time bomb, wanting to self-destruct because I believed no one cared. There were many times I did not think I would survive, or that I even wanted to live.

I struggled with emotional and identity confusion, eating disorders, suicidal ideation and numerous suicide attempts that landed me in the Intensive Care Unit of the local hospital. I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals until I was well into my twenties. The hospital became a safe haven. A place that could protect me from myself, and the emotional pain I felt. People in my life worried that I would succumb to the troubles that ailed me, because all I saw was a darkness that I did not think I could ever rise from.

While in the child welfare system, I was moved three different times within a year each time. I struggled in my foster homes because I sincerely believed that I was not worth being cared about. Though it was difficult, I was able to stay my longest in my third foster home.

Those foster parents let me know from the beginning that no matter what I did, 'they wanted me,' and although I had this assurance from them, my self esteem was so low that I acted out while in their care also. I shut myself down, and this is when I turned everything inwards and became anorexic. In the small town that they resided in, I was the only First Nation individual, and as far as I knew, one of only two other kids also in care. My teenage years were wrought with emotional inconsistencies and pain no matter what others did or where I landed.

After my third foster home, I moved back to the city that I had spent my earlier years in and into an independent living home run by the Roman Catholic Children's Aid Society. This was a home that was supposed to teach and help me with living on my own. At this home, I lived with several other girls and one staff member, had a semblance of support, and a routine, but my transition was more difficult than I would have liked. The move again tested me, but taught me a resilience I never thought I had.

I was still a small child at heart, thrust into a world no one could have prepared me for. I reunited with my sister and embarked on reconnecting with my birth mother. I still remember the day I met with a social worker at the Children's Aid who was helping me in my search, and the influx of emotions that overcame me when I heard that a few days after I had applied for my name to go on the adoption registry to find my mother, that she had applied also. I learned that my biological father was dead, but the yearning for a mother came back full force when I learned that my mother was alive and looking for me also.

My sister never really showed an interest in finding our birth parents, like I did. I believe it was because she was still in touch with our adoptive parents, and did not fully understand my reasoning for doing a search. After all, she had stayed with our adoptive parents and was not given back into care like I had been.

When my sister and I finally saw each other after seven years apart, we re-established a relationship with each other. Eventually I moved from the city I had so many troubles in and restarted a life in Toronto, Ontario. I began treatment for my eating disorders and depression, and realized that the distance of living in Toronto from Windsor was helpful. It helped me to rebuild a life that I knew I could not have if I had stayed in Windsor.

There have been community-wide effects across Canada when it comes to child welfare interventions within Native communities. They have been devastating, because First Nations children who are adopted into non-native homes often cope with "a central issue of loss as it relates to their developing sense of identity. Loss is expressed to some degree by all adoptees and is often manifested in their health -- physical, emotional, mental and spiritual." (Carriere, 2010:21)

There have also been two apologies made by the Canadian government to First Nations people of Canada. The first was on January 8, 1998 when former Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart singled out native residential schools as the most reprehensible example of Canada's degrading and paternalistic Indian policies, and the second was when Stephen Harper stood before Parliament on June 11, 2008, and in part said:

"Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools ...The treatment of children in residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative, and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.")

Though no one would disagree with Stewart and Harper's condemnation of residential schools, which were phased out in the late 1990s, one would wonder why they did not also apologize for the equally asssimilationist strategy that followed: the wide spread adoption of Aboriginal children out to non-native families.

It was a support worker that brought me to First Nations House at the University of Toronto to inquire about their Academic Bridging Program, a program that helps students prepare for University studies. After successfully completing the program, I was accepted into part time studies. Post secondary education gave me the wings to fly and find the path that I am on now.

I was fortunate to meet professors who told me 'you can do this' and staff at First Nations House who helped wake within me the power to believe in myself and in my dreams. I learned about myself, my culture, traditions and language, and built a new understanding about the history of my people, all of which helped me to understand myself and the problems I had encountered within my life.

In 2011, I graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Arts with a specialization in Aboriginal Studies. I was a recipient of the 2011 President's Award for Outstanding Native Student of the year, and my healing path continues to evolve and brings me to new places.

I have re-established a relationship with my birth mother, and my most recent visit with her in 2012 proved to me that though she could not bring me up or care for me like a mother could, because of what the Canadian government child welfare policies stripped from her, she is still very much the woman who gave me life and wants the best for me no matter what.

It is 2013, and instead of less First Nations children in care, there are more First Nation children in child welfare care today than ever before, and the over-representation is unrelenting and staggering (Blackstock, 2003; Assembly of First Nations, 2007). Overall, an estimated 27,000 First Nation children in child welfare account for 30 to 40% of all children in care even though they represent less than 5% of the child population of Canada (Blackstock & Trocme, 2005).

The Canadian governments attempt to assimilate First Nations children through adoption has been pervasive, and the impact is something many First Nations adoptees still do personal battle with to this day. We fight feelings of shame and low self-esteem instead of being proud of our heritage and what we represent in this country. It took me a while to get to where I am now, and I recognize that I am fortunate. I am doing what I love the most, writing.

I realize that, I can no longer try to destroy myself, because it is within me to correct the wrongs that were done to me, and change the legacy of my family and community, one step at a time, by making my voice heard. I want others to know adversity can be overcome.


Pivot Legal Services, Broken Promises

Budgell, Janet. Our Way Home: A Report to the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy: Repatriation of Aboriginal People Removed by the Child Welfare System, 1999

Carriere, Jeannine. Aski Awasis/Children of the Earth. First Peoples Speaking on Adoption. 2010

PM cites 'sad chapter' in apology for residential schools

Globe and Mail. 1998

Johnston, Patrick. Native Children and the Child Welfare System. Council on Social Development, 1983


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-06-23
2 Reader Comments
05:43:59 PM
Wonderful Christine!

Pete Armetta
07:47:27 PM
you are not alone it is a relief knowing I had similar life growing up being adopted myself
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