The time they took us away: faces of the Sixties Scoop

They are the faces the Sixties Scoop — Indigenous Canadians who were apprehended as children or forced into adoptive families as part of the Sixties Scoop, which spanned three decades and robbed them of their family, identity and culture.

These are just a few of the Indigenous Canadians who were apprehended or forced into adoptive families as part of the Sixties Scoop phenomenon that spanned three decades and robbed them of their family, identity and culture.

They are the faces of survivors. They share feelings of loss and being disconnected, but they also share the same resolve to move forward and heal.

Today, they are finding lost loved ones, relearning their languages and demanding an explanation. These survivors are reclaiming what was lost.

David Chartrand was 'snatched, taken and sold.'

David Chartrand is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

David Chartrand says he was not apprehended by child welfare authorities, but rather "snatched, taken and sold."

"Kidnapping would be the proper word for it," Chartrand says.

He remembers growing up in a small house in Camperville, Man., that was crowded but loving. Sixteen family members spanning three generations lived there. And then one day, there was "the raid."

"The vehicles just came in," he said. "We all started running. One brother escaped. He jumped through the window."

Others like Chartrand and both his nieces, Lori Ann O'Cheek and Lynn Thompson, weren't so lucky. The three were soon separated, sent to orphanages, foster homes and for some of them, adoptive homes.

Chartrand ended up in Minnesota, adopted by a white Lutheran couple. They acknowledged he was Indigenous, but to them it was a taunt. "They liked to tell me I was 'a no-good Indian,'" Chartrand recalls.

His adoptive father was an angry man who focused his rage on Chartrand. "He was an alcoholic and he liked to punch people around."

Chartrand ran away and hit the streets when he was 14. Immediately, he got into trouble, stealing cars and committing small crimes. That landed him in juvenile detention, where he lived for the next four years. It was, he said, the best part of his childhood.

"Can you imagine that? Juvenile delinquency was better than my [adoptive] home."

Today, David Chartrand is back in Manitoba and back to his Métis roots. He is proud to point out that he, with his nieces, paved the way for the class action lawsuits currently in the works for victims of the Sixties Scoop.

He is proud, he is strong and he is ready for the fight.

Constance Calderwood: 'I knew I was different.'

Constance Calderwood is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Constance Calderwood spent most of her childhood thinking she was the biological daughter of Irish parents.

It wasn't until she was 14 that she learned the truth about herself; she was adopted as an infant. And she was Métis.

"I knew I was different, I didn't quite fit in," Calderwood recalled. "But I didn't know the truth."

It's a truth that Calderwood, now 50, is still trying to piece together. Her history, she said, is still filled with holes.
According to her adoption papers, she was born in 1967.

Her birth mother left to work at a camp. She'd left Constance, just a baby, with caregivers she'd hired. One day, she returned from camp to learn her daughter was gone.

"I just disappeared," Calderwood said.

Her mother didn't know why or how she was gone. In fact, she denied for a time that Constance was her daughter, Calderwood said.

"When I phoned her the first time, she said she never had a child in 1967," Calderwood said. "Maybe it was 1966."

Calderwood's childhood was a mixed blessing. She had a roof over her head, food on the table and clothes on her back. But her adoptive mother was strict and her father was violent. He was also a racist.

"We'd be coming back from the cottage and he'd ask if we wanted to drive down McPhillips or drive down Main Street instead, so we could laugh at the Indians," she recalled. 

Then came the day she learned she was adopted. (She overhead someone ask her mother how long ago she'd been adopted.) That's when she learned she was Métis and decided it was time to look for her birth mother.

But it took years of searching before she got any answers, even after she accessed the post-adoption registry.

"I was on it for 10 years and nothing came up," she said. "I thought 'Wonderful. She's not even looking for me.'"
But a sibling — a sister Calderwood didn't know she had — was looking for her.

Together they pursued the search for their mother. Their reunion was bittersweet. "She doesn't remember me being born."

But slowly, Calderwood is getting answers and gaining an identity. She recently found her birth father on Facebook. He introduced her to more of her siblings.

Carla Williams: How could she be Dutch?

Carla Williams is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Carla Williams doesn't care what her birth certificate says. Her parents were not Dutch. They were Cree. And so is she.

But to this day, the only official document of her birth lists the names of her parents as the ones who adopted her; a couple who moved her from rural Manitoba to their home in Holland. A couple who paid an agency close to $7,000 to do so, she says. 

"I was sold to them," Williams said simply.

It was October, 1972. Williams, who was already in foster care, had no idea who her adoptive family were and why she was sent with them. She only knew that life there was hell. They abused her. She was scared of them.

Within a year they dissolved the adoption and she was placed into foster care. But the abuse continued. The father, a prominent physician, secured visitation rights while she was in care and took the opportunity to sexually assault her.
When she was 12, she tried to kill herself. 

By 13, she was placed in a psychiatric facility, where she remained for three years. He continued to visit, however, and twice got her pregnant.

Traumatized and lonely, she badly wanted to return to Canada. But it wasn't until she was 25 that she got the chance, when an Anishinaabe agency and her home reserve in Manitoba found some money to foot the bill.

Regardless of her birth certificate, Williams knows who she really is. She is Cree and she is proud.

Dianne Fast's foster mother tried to scrub off her skin colour.

Dianne Fast is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Just moments after Dianne Fast arrived at her new foster home, her foster mother dragged her upstairs, stripped off her clothes and scrubbed her skin until it burned.

"She was trying to scrub the brown off of me and make me white," Fast said. 

Her childhood had already been a struggle. As a toddler, she woke up early one morning, walked into the living room and stepped over her mother, lying motionless on the floor. She'd been murdered.

"The next thing I remember is the RCMP were standing there with their guns drawn and asking if there was anybody around," Fast recalled. "Then the cops came and seen it was just kids."

Fast and her siblings — two sisters and four brothers — were removed from the home and placed in different foster homes.

They were supposed to be allowed to keep in contact with each other, but Fast's foster mother forbade it.

"Every time my family came to visit, she'd make me sit inside and close the curtains," Fast said. "She'd send them away and then scrub me again, just to make sure she got the 'savage' out of me."

Her foster father beat her. His biological son sexually abused her. Her foster mother just plain hated her. Her childhood, she says, was "hell on earth."

"Tell me something. Why do people hate (Indigenous Canadians) so much?" Fast asked.

The moment she was old enough, Fast fled from the home. She never looked back. 

Today she is a mother, a recovering alcoholic (four years sober) with a regular job in western Alberta. She is reunited  with her older sister Tina.

But while she is a survivor, she's lost much of her heart. 

Her brother Willy, adopted by an Indiana couple, died of HIV in a Toronto hospice. "They said they paid $10,000 for him and they rubbed his nose in it."

Her brother Arnold was beaten to death in a north Winnipeg home. "Nothing ever came of that, no one was charged."

Her brother Daniel died of alcohol poisoning. And her brother Freddy was 19 when he shot himself on the steps of his foster home. "He had a broken heart. He just couldn't take it anymore with my mom."

Lori O'Cheek was too young to escape the scoop.

Laurie-Anne O'Cheek is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Lori O'Cheek's mother gave her children strict orders: "If you see a different car come onto the reserve, run straight to the bush and stay there."

"I was too young to flee," O'Cheek said. "They caught me."

It was exactly the scenario her mother feared. Too many times she'd seen child welfare workers take away other children from the reserve. This time, they came after hers.

"She had no clue as to where any of us were," O'Cheek said. 

O'Cheek herself didn't know where her siblings were.

She ended up in Vermont, adopted by a Jewish family who'd moved there from Montreal. They changed her name and cut her hair. They were a large family, with four children of their own and five others, including O'Cheek, adopted from across North America.

The family was affluent. O'Cheek was dressed in good clothes, went to good schools and attended synagogue every weekend.

She was also repeatedly sexually assaulted by her adoptive father. The first time it happened, she was four.

"I remember him taking me into the bathroom and stuff doing things to me," she said.

Fear of physical punishment — his choice of weapon was the strap — prevented O'Cheek from telling anyone about it.

All that changed when she turned 11 and her younger adopted sister burst into their bedroom crying, so distraught she could barely speak. "I finally got it out of her," O'Cheek said. "(My adoptive father) had started it with her, too."

That spurred O'Cheek to action. She grabbed her sister and escaped to a friend's house. Authorities were called and O'Cheek was taken into foster care. The adoption was severed. She was barely 11 and alone, with no idea who she really was or where she was from.

"I knew that I was native, and I knew I was from Canada. But I didn't know where," she said.

She spent the next two years running away from one foster home after another. "I was running, always running away, to find somebody that I belonged to," she said.

It took one sympathetic judge in a Worcester, Mass., courtroom to help her find out. She was 12, once again on the run, and wandering the streets of Boston one night. Two patrol officers spotted her and picked her up.

"They were like, 'What are you doing on the streets? You're only 12 years old,'" she recalled. 

Hours later she was standing before a judge in juvenile court. He asked her if he could do anything to help her. "I told him 'I want to find my family.'"

His response? Give him two weeks. For the first time in years, O'Cheek was overjoyed. "I knew he would do something. He told me to look forward to very good news," she said. "He was the first person to ever do anything nice for me."

Two weeks later she was back in court, facing "the most beautiful native woman" she had ever seen, she said. She was a case worker from South Dakota, tasked with helping Indigenous kids find their way home. Within a month, she'd found O'Cheek's aunts, uncles and extended family.

Months later, she was back in Manitoba. But child welfare officials prevented her from reuniting with any of her family back on the reserve.

Their explanation was ironic; she wasn't raised in their culture. She didn't belong there.

"They felt I was not ready to live with my family because I was not like them."

So she lived out her remaining childhood as a ward of the province, living in a group home and continuing to escape them. "Once I tried to escape by jumping out a window and broke my back in four places," she recalled.

Fast forward to present day: O'Cheek is in her late 40s, a mother, and she's reunited with her birth family (she is especially close to one birth sister).

Her past still haunts her, though. She suffers from depression and fights flashbacks and demons.

Lynn Thompson says sports got her through the teen years.

Lynn Thompson is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Lynn Thompson had a bad feeling when she saw three K-cars driven by white people roar down the streets of her reserve.

That's why the little girl grabbed her younger sisters and ran to the bush. But it was to no avail. "One man literally 'scooped' us all up at once, in his arms," Thompson recalled. "Then he threw me into the trunk of the car."

And that's how Thompson and her siblings were apprehended by child welfare officials in a destruction of a family that to this day she cannot understand.

"My brother was hiding in the bush, and he almost escaped, but when he saw the man grab us, he ran out to protect us," Thompson said. "That's when another man just grabbed him, too."

The siblings were almost immediately separated, bumped from foster home to foster home over the next several weeks. Eventually, one sister was adopted by a white family, who moved to Vermont and were physically abusive to her.

Another sister was adopted by a white family in Winnipeg, who were loving and accepting. It was that family who later tried to adopt Lynn, too.

"So for a short time, I was reunited with my sister," Thompson recalled. "It was nice."

Child welfare authorities decided to remove Thompson from that home and place her back into foster care.

"They came to my school and seized me from the classroom," she said. "My (adoptive) mother had no idea where I was."

Thompson was told that the family didn't want her (not true, as it turned out). Her adoptive mother was told Thompson didn't want them (also not true).

"That first adoptive family spent years searching for me," she said. 

They had no idea that immediately after Thompson was apprehended, child welfare officials put her on a plane and sent her to another family in Ontario. 

It was hellish. "They blew my eardrums out with a BB gun, they cut me with knives," she recalled.

The abuse went on for about a year, before a social worker saw the bruises and blew the whistle on the family.

Once again, Thompson found herself on a plane and back to a Winnipeg foster family. She said it was there that she got the first real break in her short life. They sent her away to school. It meant a regular schedule, three meals a day, a guaranteed education and best of all, it's where she discovered a passion.

"I excelled in sports," she said. "Women's fastball. I was pulled in as a 12-year-old to join 18-year-old players."

That passion was her saving grace, she said. Her teen years were spent playing the game at the highest level (including the 1988 Olympics).

But her struggles weren't completely behind her. Childhood memories still haunt her. A brief foray into drugs left her HIV positive, and today she's managing her illness while working as an HIV-AIDS consultant.

She's also reconnected with lost loved ones, others who were scooped up that fateful day so many years ago, and she hopes to reunite with others. They are, she said, survivors.