Many non-Indigenous Canadians have never heard of The Sixties Scoop, but for the four Dene siblings featured in the documentary Birth of a Family, it meant growing up disconnected from a family and culture they have only recently started to piece together.
The Sixties Scoop is the catch-all name for a series of policies enacted by provincial child welfare authorities starting in the mid-1950s, which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their homes and families, placed in foster homes, and eventually adopted out to white families from across Canada and the United States. These children lost their names, their languages, and a connection to their heritage. Sadly, many were also abused and made to feel ashamed of who they were.
Siblings Betty Ann, Esther, Rosalie and Ben, now in their 50s, are getting to know each other as a family for the first time, and try to reconnect with their lost Dene heritage. And while Birth of a Family is a joyful reunion, it is also punctuated by a sense of sadness for the years that were lost.
What was the Sixties Scoop, and how did it impact Indigenous communities? Here are a few facts you should know:
It stretched well beyond the ‘60s
Non-Indigenous child welfare authorities began apprehending Indigenous children long before the 1960s, but this organized, concerted effort to remove Indigenous kids from their homes kicked off in 1965. The practice continued throughout the 1970s and well into the ‘80s.
In 1983, researcher Patrick Johnson coined the term “Sixties Scoop” in a report on Aboriginal child welfare commissioned by the Canadian Council on Social Development.
Two years later, Justice Edwin Kimelman would release a review of Indigenous child apprehension called No Safe Place: Review Committee on Indian and Métis Adoptions and Placements. After reviewing the file of every Native child who had been adopted by an out-of-province family, Judge Kimelman stated: ‘that cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner’. The report was highly critical of what it called “an abysmal lack of sensitivity to children and families.” The Kimelman Report would mark the end of the Sixties Scoop era.
Saskatchewan even had an adoption agency set up to facilitate these adoptions
AIM, or Adopt Indian and Métis, was a program set up by Saskatchewan’s department of Social Services with the aim of placing First Nations and Métis kids in white households. AIM often placed newspapers ads with the children’s pictures, and would sometimes adopt children out to families in the United States.
Single mothers were sometimes coerced into giving up their children
Many women reported being pressured by doctors, nurses and social workers to give up their children shortly after birth. Women who voluntarily handed over their children would often be told that the arrangement was only temporary until they could get back on their feet. When these mothers attempted to bring their children home, they would find out the children had already been adopted.
Many administrators used the Scoop as a tool of forced assimilation
Some of the program’s administrators believed that if the children were removed from their homes early enough, they wouldn’t “imprint” as Indigenous people. Much like the residential school system before it, the Sixties Scoop was part of a broader plan to force Indigenous people into the Canadian mainstream.
Children were often removed from stable, loving extended families
Intact, loving families that were deemed to be in some way “insufficient” by white middle-class social workers had their children taken away, rather than getting support from the province. A family living on a traditional diet of dried meat and berries might be accused of not providing for their children based on the lack of a fridge or pantry shelf. Making matters worse, siblings were often separated. Indigenous children were often brought up in entirely white environments.
“I feel like I’ve been ripped off,” says Betty Ann Adam in Birth of a Family. “We didn’t have the residential school to separate us from our culture and our language. We had the Sixties Scoop.”
Canadians are finally beginning to acknowledge the harm caused by the Scoop
In 2015, Manitoba issued a formal apology to Scoop victims in that province. In February 2017, an Ontario judge presiding over a class action suit ruled that the federal government failed in its “duty of care” for the 16,000 Indigenous Ontarians who were separated from their families.