Under most circumstances, the abduction of children from loving homes is considered a crime, and creates a public outcry. When the children in question are Aboriginal and the country is Canada, the practice ceases to be a source of mass anger, confined to the realm of private shame. This is another skeleton in the closet of Native Canadian relations, and its recency turns our notions of Canadian identity as a just and inclusive nation on its head.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) estimates that between the years of approximately 1960 and 1990, upwards of 11,000 Aboriginal children (the actual numbers are likely much higher) were removed from their families and adopted into primarily non-Native homes. Many of these children were surrendered out of fear, their families subject to coercion by government officials and social workers. This period of government-supported abduction and forced adoptions peaked in the 1960s and would come to be known as the “sixties scoop”—a distressingly catchy, lighthearted title for a practice that could be fairly described as downright genocidal.
In recent years, history has slowly recognized the massive human rights violations perpetrated by Canada’s residential school initiatives, in which thousands of Native Canadians were transplanted from their homes and communities into mission boarding schools that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child” through a system of cultural alienation, marginalization, and abuse. By comparison, the sixties scoop remains largely overlooked, despite the fact that it served as a continuation of the residential schooling era’s traumas. How quickly we forget.
So much of Canadian identity is centred on an idea of inclusiveness. We proudly distance ourselves from the melting pot model of forced assimilation, opting to envision ourselves as part of a cultural mosaic made whole by its many-numbered parts. Though we are repeatedly faced with the consequences of our past—statistics of Aboriginal poverty, poor health, mental illness, and abuse as red flags of where we’ve gone awry—we often tiptoe around the darker truths of our history, like a family hiding a tremendous secret. The truth is incongruous with the way we, as self-identified Canadians, would like to see ourselves. Yet, it is a truth that thousands of Native Canadians face every day.
Many of the adopted scoop children are now adults seeking to reunite with their families and communities of origin. These individuals face a bevy of obstacles with regard to processes of reunification. Over the passing decades, many birth parents and elders died. Siblings have scattered, and names have been changed. Practical concerns are compounded by muddied questions of identity and assimilation. How, after all, does one re-enter a community after a lifetime of indoctrination against it?
For those who have survived the scoop, the quest for recognition and restoration is under way, with a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit filed against the Attorney General of Canada in the Ontario Superior Court. According to a recent Toronto Star report, the claim charges government for mishandling its constitutional responsibility to Aboriginal people by delegating child welfare services to Ontario, which the claim says resulted in the erasure of Aboriginal identities and constitutes “cultural genocide.” This lawsuit comes nearly 18 months after the federal government established a $1.9-billion reparations plan for victims of the nearly 150-year legacy of residential schools in Canada, followed by a formal apology by PM Stephen Harper last June. While it would be naïve to believe that a similar victory for those affected by a policy of forced adoption would be a cure-all, acknowledgment would be a good start.