British Columbia

Sixties Scoop continues: Advocates say B.C.'s child welfare system plagued by racial inequity

Sixties Scoop survivors and advocates say the foster care system in B.C. is plagued by the ghost of colonialism.

'We are seeding the ground for an apology that will be made 10, 20 years down the road'

Patrick Stewart was taken into care when he was a baby at St. Paul's Hospital. His mother was a residential school survivor and suffered with trauma from years of abuse. (Patrick Stewart)

Eric Stewart's Nisga'a life was not just uprooted by the Sixties Scoop, it was nearly destroyed.

"I would lie to family and friends that I was okay," Stewart said.

He was two years old when social workers took him from his mother, a residential school survivor. He was moved from foster home to foster home and recalls the most abusive one in Langley. 

"I was hog-tied with an electrical cord and laid naked on a white shag carpet, then she took cayenne pepper and put it in my throat, licked her fingers and put it in my eyes," Stewart recounted.

The foster mother told him if he was sick on the carpet, he would get more of the pepper in his throat. Then his foster brother was told to take him into the bathroom, still tied up, and pour cold water on him.

"There were times at school that I would fall asleep because I was malnourished," Stewart added.

His memories are horrific, but advocates say racial inequity continues to plague B.C.'s child welfare system.

Child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock says there are more Indigenous children in the child welfare system today than there were in residential schools or affected by the Sixties Scoop. 

"We are seeding the ground for what will be an apology 10, 20 years down the road. In B.C., it's particularly egregious in the child welfare system as the federal government did not increase prevention funding to help families stay together in 28 years," Blackstock said.

Eric Stewart at 1 year old in 1956, a year before he was apprehended by social workers in Vancouver. (Patrick Stewart)

'The sense of loss is profound'

Eric Stewart is one of more than 20,000 Indigenous people who are part of a legal settlement awarded to survivors of the notorious Sixties Scoop, a practice that saw the government remove Indigenous children from their homes and place them in foster homes or put them up for adoption. 

Some of the children were forcibly removed; others were voluntarily given up. Many of their parents were residential school survivors.

Lead negotiator of the settlement, David Klein, said $750 million in compensation for the survivors is about addressing "cultural eradication."

"Canada had an obligation to ensure these children had access to their culture and they failed," Klein said.

"The sense of loss is profound in the people I have met — they don't feel a part of the Indigenous culture nor do they feel a part of the culture they grew up in."

'Its still colonial rules'

Stewart's brother Patrick was adopted into a different home and still has letters that were written to his social worker from his grandfather.

"He would come to Vancouver and demand that us boys be returned to him. He would say, 'I don't want money, I have a big house,' and of course they said no," Patrick Stewart said.

In the 60s and 70s, Indigenous children were advertised in local newspapers and U.S. adoption centres would recruit children on reserves.

Today, Indigenous children are advertised in a similar style on the Ministry and Children and Family Development's website

Melanie Haimerl is an Ojibway woman from Canada who was adopted by parents in Connecticut in 1979. Her adoption papers included a note that she could be advertised in newspapers. 

"I had no idea that I was a part of this. It was devastating to learn about and there was a lot of physical abuse [in my adopted home]," Haimerl said.

Melanie Haimerl was 6 years old when she was adopted by a family in Connecticut. She says while not all adoptions were abusive, the legacy of the Sixties Scoop continues today. (Angela Sterritt )

To address the large number of Indigenous kids currently in care in B.C., the province now has Delegated Aboriginal Agencies that aim to keep Indigenous children with their families and communities.

Patrick Stewart is currently trying to adopt a family member and working through one of those agenices.

"They want to give responsibility to First Nations but they don't want to give any authority. It's still colonial rules that have been defining what reconciliation is," he said.

The Minister of Children and Family Development, Katrine Conroy, agrees that her government needs to make changes.

"We need to put more supports with the families up front and not be so quick to automatically remove the children," Conroy said.

She said the federal government needs to step up and provide equitable funding for the Delegated Aboriginal Agencies.

Conroy said her ministry may consider apologizing to Sixties Scoop survivors and will be having "those discussions" when they meet next in Victoria. 

To hear more, click on the audio link below.

This story is part of Angela's Sterritt's new CBC column, Reconcile This, that tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in BC. It airs every other Wednesday morning in B.C. on CBC's Radio One morning program. 


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?