The legacy of removing children from their families and communities, first through the residential schools, and then through the child protection system, continues to impact the lives of these families, their children and their grandchildren.
The term Sixties Scoop was coined by Patrick Johnston, author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. It refers to the mass removal of First Nation, Métis and Inuit children from their families into the child welfare system — in most cases without the consent of their families, bands or communities.
Professor Raven Sinclair recounts that Johnston told her about a social worker from British Columbia who shared the phrase when she told him …with tears in her eyes — that it was common practice in B.C. in the mid-sixties to scoop children from mothers on reserves — almost all newly born children were taken. She was crying because she realized — 20 years later — what a mistake that had been.
The Sixties Scoop refers to a particular phase of a larger Canadian history, and not to an explicit government policy.
Although the practice of removing Indigenous children from their families and into state care existed before the 1960s (with the Canadian federally funded Indian Residential Schools), the drastic overrepresentation of these children in the child welfare system accelerated in the 1960s.
This is because a robust new resurgence of the practice saw large numbers of children seized and taken from their homes — and placed, in most cases, into middle-class Euro-Canadian families.
The government began phasing out compulsory residential school education in the 1950s and 1960s as the public began to understand its devastating impacts on families. It was the general belief of government authorities at the time that Aboriginal children could receive a better education if they were transitioned into the public school system.
Residential schools, however, persisted as a sort of boarding school for children whose families were deemed "unsuitable" to care for them.
This transition to provincial services led to a 1951 amendment that enabled the Province to provide services to Aboriginal people where none existed federally. Child protection was one of these areas.
In 1951, twenty-nine Aboriginal children were in provincial care in British Columbia; by 1964, that number was 1,466. Aboriginal children, who had comprised only 1 per cent of all children in care, came to make up just over 34 per cent.
In the 1960s, the child welfare system did not require, nor did it expect, social workers, to have specific training in dealing with children in Aboriginal communities. Many of these social workers were completely unfamiliar with the culture or history of the First Nation, Métis & Inuit communities they entered.
What they believed constituted proper care was generally based on middle-class Euro-Canadian values. For example, when social workers entered the homes of families subsisting on a traditional Aboriginal diet of dried game, fish, and berries, and didn’t see fridges or cupboards stocked in typical Euro-Canadian fashion, they assumed that the adults in the home were not providing for their children.
Additionally, upon seeing the social problems reserve communities faced, such as poverty, unemployment, and addiction, some social workers felt a duty to protect the local children. So, instead of aiding the communities and providing support, they added to that emotional burden.
In many cases, Indigenous parents who were living in poverty but otherwise providing caring homes had their children taken from them with little or no warning and absolutely no consent.
It was not until 1980 that the Child, Family and Community Services Act required social workers to notify the band council if a child were removed from the community.
An alarmingly disproportionate number of Métis, Inuit and First Nation children were apprehended from the 1960s onward. By the 1970s, they would number one-third of all children in care.
Approximately 70% of the children apprehended were placed into non-Aboriginal homes, many of them into homes in which their heritage was denied. In some cases, the foster or adoptive parents told their children that they were now French or Italian instead.
Government policy at the time did not allow birth records to be opened unless both the child and parent consented. This meant that many children suspected their heritage but were unable to have it confirmed.
Many children floated from foster home to foster home or lived in institutionalized care. Physical and sexual abuse was not uncommon, but it was usually covered up, rendered invisible by the lack of social services and support for the families and children, a result of the general social reluctance to publicly acknowledge such abuse at the time.
The Aboriginal Committee of the Family and Children’s Services Legislation Review Panel’s report Liberating Our Children describes the negative consequences for Aboriginal children:
The homes in which children were placed ranged from those of caring, well-intentioned individuals, to places of slave labour and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The violent effects of the most negative of these homes are tragic for its victims.
Even the best of these homes are not healthy places for these children. Anglo-Canadian foster parents are not culturally equipped to create an environment in which a positive self-image can develop. In many cases, our children were taught to demean those things about themselves that are part of their heritage.
Impacts of the Sixties Scoop
|Nunatsiarmiut Mother and Child, Baffin Island, Nunavut|
For many apprehended children, the roots of these problems did not emerge until later in life when they learned about their birth family or their heritage.
Social work professor Raven Sinclair describes these experiences as creating “tremendous obstacles to the development of a strong and healthy sense of identity for the transracial adoptee.”
Feelings of not belonging in either mainstream Euro-Canadian society or in Aboriginal society can also create barriers to reaching socio-economic equity.
And yet, we still act surprised.
Several factors came together to instigate a change in the state of Aboriginal child welfare in Canada. The influential National Indian Brotherhood’s 1972 report Indian Control over Indian Education inspired Aboriginal leaders to take control of other social services as well.
Some Aboriginal leaders, including Secwepemc leader Wayne Christian, helped draw attention to the disproportionately high number of Aboriginal children apprehended by child welfare services and to the need to act.
In 1983, the Canadian Council on Social Development commissioned Patrick Johnston to undertake what became the first comprehensive statistical overview of Aboriginal child welfare. The results showed that Aboriginal children were consistently overrepresented in child welfare services.
In 1985, Justice Edwin Kimelman released a highly critical review of this child apprehension entitled No Quiet Place: Review Committee on Indian and Métis Adoptions and Placements.
In this report, popularly known as The Kimelman Report, Kimelman and his committee, after holding hearings and listening to oral testimony, made 109 recommendations for policy change. Kimelman concluded that “cultural genocide has taken place in a systematic, routine manner.”
He was particularly appalled at the tendency to have First Nation, Métis & Inuit children from Canada adopted out to American families, calling it a policy of “wholesale exportation.” Kimelman finished his report by expressing his thoughts on his findings:
An abysmal lack of sensitivity to children and families was revealed. Families approached agencies for help and found that what was described as being in the child’s “best interest” resulted in their families being torn asunder and siblings separated. Social workers grappled with cultural patterns far different from their own with no preparation and no opportunity to gain understanding.
Child apprehension became viewed as the successor to the residential school system and as a new form of “cultural genocide.”
Under article 2(e) of the U.N. Convention on Genocide (1948), “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” constitutes genocide when the intent is to destroy a culture.
Many individuals may have acted with the best of intentions but as a Canadian cultural practice, it was genocide.
During the 1980s, the accumulation of the Kimelman report, the Johnston report, and resolutions by First Nations bands led provinces to amend their adoption laws to prioritize prospective adoption placements as follows: first, within the extended family of the child; second, by another Aboriginal family; third, by a non-Aboriginal family.
In 1990, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) created the First Nations Child and Family Services program (FNCFS), which transferred the administration of child and family services from the province or territory to the local band. Under the program, bands administer these services according to provincial or territorial legislation and child welfare standards, and INAC helps fund the bands’ child and family welfare agencies.
Bands have increasingly taken control over their own child protection services. These services have also undergone some reform, such as expanding resources for single parents and establishing juvenile probation services.
A Métis Child-Family Services program based in Edmonton is another example of an organization that incorporates traditional values into its adoptive family assessments. In many provinces and territories across Canada, a child is now entitled to know its background, and cultural appropriateness is considered in the assessment and screening of potential caregivers.
What is the Situation Today?
Sadly, the involvement of the child welfare system is no less prolific in the current era…the “Sixties Scoop” has merely evolved into the “Millennium Scoop.” – Sinclair, “Identity lost and found: Lessons from the sixties scoop.”
This overrepresentation continues today. We are now in 2021, looking big-eyed and surprised. Who knew? We knew. We have known for a very long time — and we continue the practice today.
We know it is wrong and we know we need to act. We know the solution is not separating and destroying families but rather supporting them, supporting communities.
The time for Truth and Reconciliation is now. It is not something we need to work towards in future. The time for wholesale support of children, families and communities is now. Right now. The time to heal is now. Canada has a chance to show leadership and compassion, a chance to develop systems that work.
Look at the children in your life. Imagine this for them. What would you do? What wouldn't you do? For each of them, let us come together and do better — for everyone.
If you fancy a read, here are some links below for you to explore that provide various lenses on the issue.
Canada. Report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 3, Gathering Strength. Chapter 2, “Families.” Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996. 9-106.
Bennett, Marilyn. “First Nations Fact Sheet: A General Profile on First Nations Child Welfare in Canada.” First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Available online at: https://fncaringsociety.com/.../docs/FirstNationsFS1.pdf
Blackstock, Cindy, et al. “Keeping the Promise: The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Lived Experiences of First Nations Children and Youth.” First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, 2004. Available online at: https://fncaringsociety.com/.../docs/KeepingThePromise.pdf
Fournier, Suzanne and Ernie Crey. Stolen from Our Embrace. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1997.
Mandell, Deena, et al. “Chapter Three: Aboriginal Child Welfare.” In Cameron, Gary, Nick Coady, and Gerald R. Adams, eds. Moving Toward Positive Systems of Child and Family Welfare: Current Issues and Future Directions. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007.
Sinclair, Raven. 2007. “Identity lost and found: Lessons from the sixties scoop.” First Peoples Child and Family Review. 3.1 (2007): 65-82. Available online at: https://fncaringsociety.com/.../vol3num1/Sinclair_pp65.pdf
Swidrovich, Cheryl Marlene. “Positive Experiences of First Nations Children in non-Aboriginal Foster or Adoptive Care: De-Constructing the “Sixties Scoop.” MA Thesis, University of Saskatchewan. 2004. Available online at: http://hdl.handle.net/10388/etd-07082008-141746
Walmsley, Christopher. Protecting Aboriginal Children. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005.
Photo: A gloriously happy Nunatsiarmiut Mother & Child, Solo Child, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada & Every Child Matters Illustration by the Fossil Huntress