Indigenous

Sister struggles to bring her Sixties Scoop brother's ashes home from U.S.

When Susan Chief wanted to bring her brother's remains home to Manitoba, she ended up in a dispute with his adoptive family.

What are a birth family's rights when a loved one adopted through the Sixties Scoop dies?

Susan Chief holds a picture of her late brother, Danny Chief, who was adopted into the United States during the Sixties Scoop. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Susan Chief is experiencing loss all over again after her brother's death. 

He was a part of the Sixties Scoop, and following his death in the U.S. earlier this year, she wanted to bring his remains home to Manitoba but ended up in a dispute with his adoptive family.

The Sixties Scoop is the name for a series of policies by provincial child welfare authorities between the 1950s and the 1990s which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their families and communities and placed with non-Indigenous foster or adoptive parents, losing their cultural identities as a result.

The Chief family lived in Birch River, a community close to Swan River, Man., about 485 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. There were nine siblings taken from the family. Daniel Ross and one of his brothers were sent to a family in Minnesota.

Daniel 'Danny' Chief or Ross, was adopted to a family residing in Minnesota during the sixties scoop. (Submitted by Susan Chief)

Chief said she reconnected with Danny, 59, online, only a couple months before he died in Florida at the end of March after a heart attack. 

Chief, 68, now lives in Winnipeg and said he told her he wanted to be buried in Duck Bay, Man., with his birth parents.

"He said, 'You know, if something ever happens to me, if I ever die,' he said, 'All I want is to go to Duck Bay to be buried beside mom,'" she said. 

Chief said Ross expressed a desire to come home for a visit, maybe to stay, just weeks before he died.

Chief found out from a Facebook message that he had died.

She said she has been trying for months to work with her brother's adoptive family to settle his estate. Chief said his adoptive sister organized everything, including making the decision to have him cremated and sent back to Minnesota.

His adoptive sister declined to comment.

Susan Chief dealt for months with her late brother's adoptive sister trying to finalize his estate, hoping to bring his ashes home to Manitoba to be buried with his parents. (CBC)

Chief said his adoptive sister agreed to plan to bring his ashes to Manitoba, but then plans kept changing. 

"All of a sudden I got a call… She said, 'Susan, I'm sorry to tell you, but we're not going to be going to Winnipeg or Duck Bay, Danny is going to be buried here.'" 

Chief said the adoptive sister told her it was because his other birth brother, who also lives in the United States, did not want Danny to be buried in Manitoba. 

After months of back and forth, they finally came to an agreement to split the ashes between two locations.

Chief was reluctant to agree.

"We talked about the Sixties Scoop and what happened, and she never, ever heard about it, she doesn't know what it is. [She said] 'All I know is these two boys were brought to our home.'"

Chief said Danny told her he was not happy with his adopted family and left at age 17. 

Write it down

Because Danny didn't have a will, the rights to his estate and to decide what happens to his remains is legally held by his adoptive family. Since it was only in a phone call where he expressed his wishes, verbal consent cannot be honoured legally. 

Colleen Cardinal (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Colleen Cardinal is co-founder of the Sixties Scoop Network, an organization that supports Sixties Scoop survivors and raises awareness about the issue. She said without a will, blood relatives have little say in arrangements after their siblings' deaths. 

"It's not the first time we've heard of this issue," said Cardinal. 

"We're trying to advocate that adoptees get a written will and health directives for what to do with their body and who would get custody for their remains. Unless [they] wrote something down, the legal family has the legal right to do what they want."

She said even a note on a piece of paper that's not an official will is good enough, as long as it's notarized. 

"It's their word against the adoptive family," she said. 

"It's unfortunate. Many adoptees want to be buried in their communities or back where they came from and they get buried in church cemeteries and that's not what they want to do."

Danny Chief was only 59 when he died suddenly in March, 2022. (Submitted by Susan Chief)

Chief is a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF), and the organization said an experience like hers only re-traumatizes people. 

Frances Chartrand, the MMF's minister of health, said in an emailed statement to CBC News that the Sixties Scoop is a clear example of intergenerational trauma.

"Even in death, we still have to fight to bring our children home and there is a lot of anger and hurt in the affected families. It doesn't go away," the statement said.

Chief is going to Minnesota this month to bring her brother home.

"I try and think positive," she said. "At least we'll have some of him." 

Sister struggles to bring her Sixties Scoop brother's ashes home from U.S.

1 month ago
Duration 2:44
Susan Chief is experiencing loss all over again after her brother's death. He was a part of the Sixties Scoop, and following his death in the U.S. earlier this year, she wanted to bring his remains home to Manitoba but ended up in a dispute with his adoptive family.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Renée Lilley

Reporter, CBC Indigenous

Renée Lilley is a reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Winnipeg. She is a recipient of the CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowship for 2022 and is a recent University of Winnipeg grad with a BA in rhetoric and communications. She has reported for radio and online news in her hometown of Portage la Prairie, Man. She is also a proud Métis mama of four girls.

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