FINDING CLEO

Creator of Sixties Scoop adoption program says it wasn't meant to place kids with white families

Fifty-year-old documents uncovered by the CBC podcast Finding Cleo detail a tense struggle between the bureaucrats behind a Saskatchewan adoption program and Indigenous groups that called it an act of "cultural genocide."

Adopt Indian Métis program called 'racist,' 'cultural genocide'

Nora Cummings, who was president of the Saskatchewan Native Women's Association, recruited hundreds of women for a meeting with the provincial minister of social services in 1973 to protest adoption ads such as these. (Connie Walker/CBC)

The CBC podcast Finding Cleo, with host Connie Walker, follows a family's search for Cleo Semaganis Nicotine, who was adopted out of her Saskatchewan First Nations community and sent to live in the U.S. during what became known as the Sixties Scoop. Listen to the first eight episodes and read more about the program through which Cleo was adopted, which has been denounced by some as a form "cultural genocide."

It was a devastating day in April 1973 when Lillian Semaganis, a young Cree mother whose six children had all been taken by Saskatchewan social services, opened the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix newspaper to see two of her own daughters advertised for adoption.

Her friend Nora Cummings still chokes up when she remembers the moment.

"She came out holding this newspaper, and she was crying. And she said, 'These are my babies!'"

She came out holding this newspaper and she was crying. And she said, "These are my babies!"- Nora Cummings, on her friend Lillian  Semaganis

The ad featuring the smiling faces of her children was for the Saskatchewan government's Adopt Indian Métis program (A.I.M.).

Cummings, who was president of the Saskatchewan Native Women's Association at the time, was so incensed that she immediately recruited hundreds of women for a meeting with the minister of social services to protest the ads.

"The little stories that were written up [to accompany the ads] — when I look at it now, I think about when you're looking to adopt a pet," Cummings said.

Once seen as a success by the Saskatchewan government, A.I.M. is now considered to be a tragic chapter of the Sixties Scoop, an era in which tens of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their families and put in foster care or adopted, mostly into white families.

Otto Driedger, a former Saskatchewan director of welfare who started A.I.M. and remained with the program for two years afterward, said its only goal was finding children permanent homes.

"The alternative was for them to be in foster homes because of the neglect there was or the abuse that there was in families," Driedger said in his first interview about the program since he left it in the late '60s.

Placing children with white families was "not the basis of the child welfare program," he said.

This ad appeared in the Regina Leader-Post newspaper on Nov. 14, 1972. (Regina Leader-Post)

But while adopting Indigenous children into white homes might not have been the goal, it was largely the result.

And 50-year-old government documents uncovered by a CBC podcast investigating the disappearance of one of Lillian Semaganis's children, Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, known as Cleo, detail a tense struggle between the bureaucrats behind A.I.M and Indigenous groups in Saskatchewan who called the adoption program "racist" and an act of "cultural genocide."

Listen to Episode 6: A closer look at Cleo's early life in Little Pine First Nation

A brief encounter with someone who knew Cleo perhaps better than anyone else just before her death reveals crucial details. Connecting new facts about her life leads the investigation to a world far from where Cleo died, back to Little Pine First Nation. 49:06

'A vicious cycle'

A.I.M. was launched by Saskatchewan Social Services in 1967 as a solution to the growing number of Indigenous children in government care. When Cyril Macdonald, Saskatchewan's minister of welfare, went on television that year to announce the program, he said the number of Indigenous children in care had been growing by 180 per year.

Saskatchewan Minister of Welfare goes on TV in 1967 to announce adoption program for Indigenous children 2:19

(Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan FILM R-445.5)

"While we have had reasonable success in placing white children for adoption, we have had great difficulty in placing Indian and Métis children," Macdonald explained.

He optimistically predicted A.I.M. would "reduce the possibility of prejudice" against Indigenous children who often cycled through foster homes for years.

"After all, Indian and Métis children have the same potential as white. The only difference is the colour of their skin." 

Allyson Stevenson is a University of Regina historian who has studied the effects of the A.I.M. program. (Jennifer Fowler/CBC)

Allyson Stevenson, a University of Regina historian who has studied A.I.M., said the government appeal was "meant to educate white middle-class families about the need for adoptive homes for Indigenous children."

Stevenson said Indigenous children were often removed from their families for the same reasons that have led to their overrepresentation in care today.

"Housing, education, violence against women … access to child care, affordable food, loss of land — those kinds of things drive the child welfare system," Stevenson said.

"It's a vicious cycle. There are all kinds of reasons people always have for taking kids away from Indigenous families."

One of the reasons was lingering effects from many parents' own experiences in residential schools, and that includes Lillian Semaganis, said Nora Cummings.

"They had a lot of trauma to deal with," said Cummings, now a Métis elder.

Listen to Episode 7: New revelations about Cleo's biological mother, Lillian.

Connie’s chance meeting with the father who Cleo never knew is followed by new revelations about the Semaganis children’s biological mother, Lillian. A picture begins to emerge about why her children were taken, and when she joined the fight to stop the adoption of more Indigenous children into white homes. 31:40

Fewer 'typical adoptions'

Along with newspaper ads, the department of social services ran TV spots for A.I.M. featuring happy Indigenous children in their new, loving homes. The campaign was considered a success.

According to a 1969 report by the Saskatchewan department of welfare, the ad campaign was "dignified and in good taste — as befits a governmental institution which is sponsoring a project of some delicacy."

Department officials also took their pitch to dozens of church and community groups, saying that the program was a way to offset a decrease in "typical adoptions."

This ad appeared in the Regina Leader-Post newspaper on Oct. 31, 1972. (Regina Leader-Post)

In speaking notes used by the program's director, Gerald Jacob, in 1973, the department said, "As you all are aware the pill, abortion and the tendency of mothers to keep their children has virtually dried up the market for typical adoptions — by typical adoption I mean Caucasian, good health and under three months."

Read the other features in the Finding Cleo series:

Within four years of its launch, hundreds of Indigenous children had been placed through A.I.M., 92 per cent of them in white families.

A 1975 report by the director of A.I.M. reveals how little resistance there often was from the courts to removing children from their families.

"Essentially, if the evidence existed that the child was being neglected and if the parents did not agree with our assessment, we could simply take the matter to court and, I believe, in most of the situations, win," it said.

    Native Homes for Native Children

    Nora Cummings' group, the Saskatchewan Native Women's Association, wanted the care of Indigenous children out of the hands of government altogether, and pitched several proposals for a "Native Home for Native Children" in Saskatoon.

    In a document that foreshadowed the federal government's admission 45 years later, the women argued, "each child has a right to his cultural identity and heritage."

    "Native children, in many cases, are being placed in white middle class homes, which provide an environment alien to their emotional, spiritual and cultural needs," it said.

    The director of social services at the time, D.J. Cameron, not only denied them funding but did not share the women's concern with preserving children's ties to their culture.

    "In my mind, it makes little difference to a child what culture he is brought up in," Cameron wrote in 1974.

    Minister of Social Services Herman Rolfes expressed the same belief.

    "There have been statements made from time to time that the department is guilty of practising racial and cultural genocide because we place native children for adoption in non-native homes. We reject that charge. We do not believe that a child who is placed in a home which is racially different cannot grow up with a healthy and positive identification with his racial and cultural beginnings," he said in 1976.

    Stevenson said decisions such as these were rooted in a paternalistic attitude.

    "They know best, despite evidence, despite consulting, despite other opinions," she said. "Then they continue to enforce their benevolent program despite objections."

    'I have mixed feelings'

    Last October, the federal government offered an $800-million settlement to First Nations and Inuit adoptees as compensation for their loss of culture and identity during the Sixties Scoop. Métis people, however, are excluded.

    Otto Driedger, a former Saskatchewan director of welfare who started A.I.M. and remained with the program for two years afterward, said its only goal was finding children permanent homes. (Jennifer Fowler/CBC)

    Now retired, Otto Driedger said he understands adoptees' criticisms of the program he started, but the goal was always to get as many children as possible into permanent homes.

    "I can understand the hostility that people have because they were taken away from their identity," he said. "I wouldn't say I have regrets. I say I have mixed feelings."

    Listen to Episode 8: Connie speaks to the man who created the controversial A.I.M. program

    Digging through archives in Saskatchewan, Connie makes a shocking discovery. As she investigates the controversial Adopt Indian Metis program which Cleo and her siblings were a part of, the man who started the program agrees to speak with her about its controversial origins, and legacy. 35:55

    Lillian Semaganis, who once saw her daughters advertised in the newspaper, reunited with most — but not all — of her children as adults. Lillian Semaganis died in 2014.

    "She wanted to fight for her children," said her friend Nora Cummings. "She loved her children … she never, never gave up on them."

    With files from Connie Walker, Marnie Luke, Mieke Anderson and Heather Evans