About 200 Aboriginal people gathered in Toronto on Tuesday to speak out against the Sixties Scoop in Ontario, a period of nearly 20 years starting in the 1960s in which Aboriginal children were placed with non-Native families.
The Sixties Scoop survivors demonstrated outside a courthouse in downtown Toronto early Tuesday before a hearing on a class action lawsuit against the practice got underway.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs are calling for a summary judgment in the legal battle that began seven years ago. A hearing on the matter was adjourned and will resume Dec. 1st unless the federal government reaches a settlement with Sixties Scoop survivors in Ontario first.
The lawsuit turns on a federal-provincial arrangement, now dubbed the Sixties Scoop, in which Ontario child welfare services placed as many as 16,000 Aboriginal children with non-Native families from 1965 to 1984.
Their unproven claim alleges the children suffered a devastating loss of cultural identity that Canada negligently failed to protect.
They want $1.3 billion in various damages, or about $85,000 for each affected person.
First Nations Chief Marcia Brown Martel, the representative plaintiff in the Ontario case, told CBC News that the Sixties Scoop robbed her of her cultural identity.
"There is a sadness to me," Martel said at the rally. "There truly is a sadness to me, not to have been able to speak to my mother in her own language, to have great dialogue with her, not to be able to speak to my grandmother, who had such knowledge. Those are the regrets that I have."
Martel, now chief of Beaverhouse First Nation, near Kirkland Lake, Ont., was taken by child welfare officials and adopted by a non-native family as a child.
She said more than a lawsuit is needed to help First Nations people recover from the Sixties Scoop.
"For the people who are here, that they would be able to speak their language, as they should — that they would be able to understand and have a knowledge of their culture and tradition, not only as a knowledge, but as a lifestyle, that these are integral parts of being a human being on this planet," she said.
Siblings had never met before
For Thomas Norton, this morning's rally was an especially poignant moment. He met his sister Karen Rae for the very first time. She was taken from their parents' home on the Sagueen First Nation before Norton was born.
"I had no idea what she was doing in her life and she had no idea what I was doing," he said. "You need to build the relationship and gather strength from that as a family."
Rae was brought to the rally by Doreen Reidpath, another sibling. Reidpath says today's hearing is an important step toward healing.
"I feel I can't be bitter," she said. "It's either you become better or you become bitter and I choose to make it better."
Angela Ashawasegai, another Sixties Scoop survivor who rallied outside the courthouse, said the important day also brings back painful memories.
'It's being recognized'
"It's a very emotional day for me because I waited a long time for my story, for my experience of losing my culture and identity. It's being recognized," she said.
"I lost my culture and I lost my family. Even though I've been reunited with them, I still feel a sense of disconnection. I have a hard time feeling like I fit in with my culture. And having this day is very important."
She recalled the abuse she suffered at her adoptive home and how she was "basically in survival mode."
"They treated me like a farmhand. They abused me. I couldn't do anything right," she said, adding that she was physically abused and yelled at. "I was called a squaw, all these racist things."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Tuesday the provincial government needs to look the impact of the Sixties Scoop on Aboriginal peoples in the province.
"I think that we need to look at everything that we can do," said Wynne, who was in Barrie, Ont., to make a transit funding announcement. "All of those interactions that have damaged or created a really fractious relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have to be examined.
"We are taking very important steps to rewrite the story and change the story going forward in those relationships."
According to the suit, the children taken from their families suffered emotional, psychological and spiritual harm from the lost connection to their Aboriginal heritage.
Jeffery Wilson, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the case is the first in the western world on whether a national government has an obligation to protect and preserve the cultural identity of its Indigenous people.
The plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, which was to be heard Tuesday, essentially calls on Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba to decide the case based on the evidence the court already has without the need for a full trial.
Canada has previously tried to have the case thrown out as futile. Among other things, Ottawa has argued it was acting in the best interests of the children and within the social norms of the day. However, Divisional Court ruled in December 2014 that the plaintiffs deserved a chance to argue the merits of their position at trial.
"It is difficult to see a specific interest that could be of more importance to Aboriginal peoples than each person's essential connection to their Aboriginal heritage," the three-justice panel concluded.
In early March, the courts ruled the action should proceed over two weeks, starting Aug. 23. However, much to the chagrin of the plaintiffs, the government late last month asked for a delay, saying it needed more time to come up with experts to counter the claims.
The court refused.
Rally for $1.8 billion class action lawsuit against the federal gov't arguing loss of cultural identity pic.twitter.com/EIsJSVul6C— @CBCLorenda
Given the prospect of more government appeals and delays, the plaintiffs agreed to the one-day hearing. In exchange, the government since filed thousands of pages of materials, but has until November to file expert evidence. The hearing is slated to resume for two days on Dec. 1.
Wilson said he hoped the hiatus would allow for a negotiated settlement — a tack the Liberal government now appears to favour. Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said last week she would like to see the case discussed at the table rather than in court.
The Ontario case differs from scoop lawsuits in several other provinces in that it does not take legal issue with the placement of Indian children in non-Aboriginal homes because it was done under court orders in the best interests of the child.
In addition, Ontario was the only province to sign a formal agreement with Ottawa to take over the protection and adoption of First Nations children. The case turns on a single provision the plaintiffs say essentially required the federal government to consult Indian bands and maintain oversight of the children's welfare.
Last week, five Aboriginal leaders wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to urge his government to settle, and admit the "immense wrong" done the scoop children.
"This moment is an opportunity for Canada to put an ugly legacy behind us," the letter states.