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The Sixties Scoop was a period in which a series of policies were enacted in Canada that enabled child welfare authorities to take, or "scoop up," Indigenous children from their families and communities for placement in foster homes, from where they would be adopted by white families. Despite its name referencing the 1960s, the Sixties Scoop began in the mid-to-late 1950s and persisted into the 1980s.
Each province had different foster programs and adoption policies; Saskatchewan had the only targeted Indigenous transracial adoption program, the Adopt Indian Métis (AIM) Program. The term "Sixties Scoop" itself was coined in the early 1980s by social workers in the British Columbia Department of Social Welfare to describe their own department's practice of child apprehension. The phrase first appears in print in a 1983 report commissioned by the Canadian Council on Social Development, titled "Native Children and the Child Welfare System", in which researcher Patrick Johnston noted the source for the term and adopted its usage. It is similar to the term "Baby Scoop Era," which refers to the period from the late 1950s to the 1980s in which large numbers of children were taken from unmarried mothers for adoption.
The government policies that led to the Sixties Scoop were discontinued in the mid-1980s, after Ontario chiefs had passed resolutions against them, and a Manitoba judicial inquiry had harshly condemned them. Associate Chief Judge Edwin C. Kimelman headed the Manitoba inquiry, which resulted in the publication of "No quiet place / Review Committee on Indian and Metis Adoptions and Placements", better known as the "Kimelman Report".
Multiple lawsuits have since been filed in Canada by former wards of the Sixties Scoop, including a series of class-action lawsuits launched in five provinces, such as the one filed in British Columbia in 2011. Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel was the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit filed in Ontario in 2009. On 14 February 2017, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba ruled that the government was liable for the harm caused by the Sixties Scoop; and on 6 October 2017, an $800-million settlement was announced for the Martel case. As Métis and non-status First Nations people are currently excluded from the agreement, National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network—a group led by Sixties Scoop survivors based in Ottawa—has advocated for the settlement to be rejected unless it includes all Indigenous people who were taken from their homes and forcibly adopted.
Canada's residential school system was implemented by the federal government and administered by various churches. Its purpose was to educate Aboriginal children in Euro-Canadian and Christian values so that they could become part of mainstream society. The school system was in effect until 1996, when the last school closed. Children were forcibly removed from their families and homes for an extended period of time. The policies forbade the children from speaking their own languages or from acknowledging their culture in any way. Survivors of the residential schools have come forward and spoken out about physical, spiritual, sexual, and psychological abuse that they experienced at the hand of the residential school staff. The lasting cultural impact on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit families and communities has been widespread and extensive.
The Canadian government started to close the compulsory residential school system in the 1950s and the 1960s, but the government authorities thought that Aboriginal children would benefit from a better education in the public school system. According to one summary:
This transition to provincial services led to a 1951 [Indian Act] 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 percent of all children in care, came to make up just over 34 percent.
Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, was mandated to document the experiences of Indigenous children in residential schools and to share the truth of survivors, families, communities, and others affected with all Canadians. According to the TRC Commission's final report, published in 2015:
By the end of the 1970s, the transfer of children from residential schools was nearly complete in Southern Canada, and the impact of the Sixties Scoop was in evidence across the country.
First Nations communities responded to the loss of their children and the resulting cultural genocide by repatriating children whose adoptions failed and working to regain control over child welfare practices related to their children, which started in 1973 with the Blackfoot (Siksika) child welfare agreement in Alberta. There are about 125 First Nations Child and Family Service Agencies across Canada, but they operate through a patchwork of agreements that give them authority from the provincial government to provide services and funding from the federal government.
Adopt Indian Métis program
Funded by the Canadian and Saskatchewan governments, the Adopt Indian Métis (AIM) was a program that was started to promote the adoption of First Nations children by middle-class white families in 1967. The project was started by Otto Driedger, who later become Director of Child Welfare for Saskatchewan, and Frank Dornstauder. AIM was the only targeted Indigenous transracial adoption program in Canada.
CBC News produced a television segment about the AIM after the project's first year, in May 1968. It showed several Indian and Métis children playing as the reporter, Craig Oliver, told viewers that they represented only a few of the hundreds of First Nations children ages six weeks to six years who are in need of homes. He stated that there has been an increase in the number of children from these communities who are up for adoption because the rise in illegitimate births and marriage breakdowns among Indian and Métis people. The government had been taking in nearly 200 children each year as wards of the state and was having difficulty finding permanent homes for them. The news report portrayed the AIM program as a solution to the problem and focused on its quantifiable results by placing 100 children, including several family groups of children, in its first year.
When CBC News ran the segment, all of the children remained with their adoptive families. The program advertised the availability of the Indian and the Métis children for adoption by a marketing campaign with radio, television, and newspaper advertising. The large photographs of these children that ran in provincial newspapers with the AIM advertisements were said to be the most effective aspect of its outreach to prospective families. The program also promised fast adoptions, with completion of the process within as few as 10 weeks.
The original AIM program ran through 1969 and resulted in an increased interest in transracial adoptions. The focus of the program was broadened in 1970 to include all children, but it continued to over-represent First Nations children given the high number that were taken into custody by social workers in Saskatchewan. For example, in 1969, Indian and Métis people represented only 7.5% of the population of Saskatchewan, but their children accounted for 41.9% of all children in foster homes in the province.
In 1971, the Métis Society in Saskatoon formed a Métis Foster Home Committee, led by Howard Adams, Phyllis Trochie, Nora Thibodeau, and Vicki Raceme. Its purpose was to challenge the AIM program and research the creation of a Métis-controlled foster home program. Those leading the committee saw the AIM program as detrimental to children, parents and the Métis community. They said that the AIM's advertising campaign was racist, specifically because it implied Métis parents were unable to look after their children, portrayed First Nations children as inferior and unwanted, and suggested that any white family could be accepted for adoptions.
A CBC News segment in 1971 by reporter John Warren stated that 500 children had found permanent homes through the AIM program. An unidentified man representing the AIM that Warren interviewed said that the increased adoptions of Indian and Métis children was caused not by prior prejudice but by the increased awareness of their availability for adoption, adding that 170 children up to 10 were in need of homes. Further, the AIM representative stated that four years earlier, "children of native origin" had represented only one in ten of the children adopted in Saskatchewan and for the past two years had represented one in four of the children adopted in the province. The AIM representative said that though it was not the primary goal of the program, he hoped that the AIM would help people of different races understand each other. In his report, Warren also mentioned that First Nations leaders were criticizing the AIM as an attempt at integration and were drafting complaints about the program to bring to federal and provincial leaders.
A CBC Radio podcast series, Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo, takes an in-depth look at the experience of a Cree girl named Cleopatra (Cleo) Nicotine Semaganis. In 1974, at the age of nine, Cleo was removed from her family in Saskatchewan as part of the AIM program. The family never saw her again and wanted to know what had happened to her. The series website includes images of the AIM newspaper advertisements featuring photographs and personal and health information about the Indian and Métis children available for adoption. It also includes an internal memo, dated 25 September 1973, from AIM director, G.E. Jacob, that recommended as an Award of Merit to a supervisor in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Mrs. D. Wilson, as Salesperson of the Year. That award was to recognize the number of children that she made wards of the province and eligible for adoption.
In 1977, about 15,500 Indigenous children were in the care of child welfare authorities, an estimate based on data from Indian and Northern Affairs, Health and Welfare Canada, Statistics Canada, and provincial departments of social services. They represented 20% of all Canadian children living in care, even though Indigenous children made up less than 5% of the total child population.
In 1983, Patrick Johnston, then a program director at the Canadian Council on Social Development, coined the term "Sixties Scoop" in a report on Aboriginal child welfare, titled "Native Children and the Child Welfare System". His research found that Aboriginal children were being disproportionately taken into the child welfare system.
Johnston, in researching his report, collected statistical data from various stakeholders within the community, including different levels of government, Aboriginal organizations, and band councils. He got the idea for the term "Sixties Scoop" from a social worker who disclosed "with tears in her eyes – that it was common practice in BC in the mid-sixties to 'scoop' from their mothers on reserves almost all newly born children. She was crying because she realized – 20 years later – what a mistake that had been."
The proportion of children in care who were Aboriginal was 40-50% in Alberta; 60-70% in Saskatchewan; and 50-60% in Manitoba. According to the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission, "Johnston estimated that, across Canada, Aboriginal children were 4.5 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to be in the care of child welfare authorities." Similar findings have been reported by other experts.
Most of the children who were removed by social workers did not return to their communities. A 1980 study by the Canadian Council on Social Development found that 78% of status First Nations children who were adopted were placed with non-Indigenous families.
Raven Sinclair, an associate professor at the University of Regina and a member of Gordon First Nation, wrote an article titled Identity lost and found: Lessons from The Sixties Scoop in which she discusses the broader context of the term:
At the same time as we may be alarmed by the statistics, it is important to recognize that the Sixties Scoop was not a specific child welfare program or policy. It names one segment of a larger period in Aboriginal child welfare history where, because questionable apprehensions and adoptions figured prominently, a label was applied. The "Sixties Scoop" has evolved as a descriptor that is now applied to the whole of the Aboriginal child welfare era, simplistically defined here as roughly the time from the waning of residential schools to the mid-1980s period of child welfare devolution and last closings of Indian residential schools.... The white social worker, following on the heels of the missionary, the priest and the Indian agent, was convinced that the only hope for the salvation of the Indian people lay in the removal of their children.
A judicial inquiry over the "Sixties Scoop" in Manitoba was headed by Associate Chief Judge Edwin C. Kimelman. The inquiry resulted in the 1985 publication of "No quiet place / Review Committee on Indian and Metis Adoptions and Placements", better known as the "Kimelman Report".
The Kimelman Report was a strong critique of both the existing child welfare system in Manitoba and the practices of its social workers and agencies:
Rather, it is believed that every level of personnel in the child welfare system has been so free of examination for so long that the least attention was viewed as negative criticism. Staff seemed unable to recognize that public examination of the system was long overdue.
The Report included the following allegations against child welfare policies in the province:
The native people of Manitoba had charged that the interpretation of the term "best interest of the child" had been wrought with cultural bias in a system dominated by white, middle class workers, boards of directors, administrators, lawyers and judges. They also alleged that in application of the legislation, there were many factors which were crucially important to the native people which had been ignored, misinterpreted, or simply not recognized by the child welfare system.
It found that Manitoba's non-Indigenous agencies often required single, Indigenous mothers to live on their own, as opposed to in traditional, multi-generational households, to regain custody of their children.
This demand goes against the native patterns of child care. In the native tradition, the need of a young mother to be mothered herself is recognized. The grandparents and aunts and uncles expect the demands and rewards of raising the new member of the family. To insist that the mother remove herself from the support of her family when she needs them most is unrealistic and cruel.
Membership changes in the new Indian Act also prevented single Indigenous mothers from living with their children on reserves and complicated placements with family members. Mothers who chose to remain on reserves with their children had to first prove that the father of their children had First Nations status. Additionally, children of unmarried First Nations mothers often could not be placed with families on reserves due to these same membership stipulations.
The Kimelman Report included 109 recommendations to address issues that ranged from cultural sensitivity to maintenance of family ties, formal training for professionals, structure of the system, and having records accessible by computer. It went on to refer to the loss of the children as a "cultural genocide." A 1989 follow-up report published in the Canadian Journal of Native Studies by the Manitoba Métis Federation indicated that the situation had not improved but in some ways was becoming more problematic for Métis children.
Deanna Reder, a Cree-Métis associate professor in the Departments of First Nations Studies and English at Simon Fraser University, wrote in 2007 that adult adoptees who were affected by these policies have begun to speak out about their losses: loss of their cultural identity, lost contact with their natural families, barred access from medical histories, and for status Indian children, the loss of their status.
Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) documented the experiences of Indigenous children who were removed from their families and placed in residential schools by the government. TRC Commissioners, who were tasked with sharing this knowledge with all Canadians, focused on child welfare in the first five of 94 calls to action in their final report. Published in 2015, the TRC report addresses the effects of the Sixties Scoop as well that of residential schools on Indigenous communities:
Today, the effects of the residential school experience and the Sixties Scoop have adversely affected parenting skills and the success of many Aboriginal families. These factors, combined with prejudicial attitudes toward Aboriginal parenting skills and a tendency to see Aboriginal poverty as a symptom of neglect, rather than as a consequence of failed government policies, have resulted in grossly disproportionate rates of child apprehension among Aboriginal people.
The aftereffects of the Sixties Scoop remain an issue in child welfare provision for Aboriginal communities in Canada. Scholar Chris Walmsley notes in Protecting Aboriginal Children (2011) that some social workers find themselves in a similar alienated relationship to communities. Walmsley referred to one heavily publicised incident in which 71 children were removed from a community in 1998 (though not all were Aboriginal). One Aboriginal childcare worker said "to me it was very shocking... it reminded me of the Sixties Scoop when kids on-reserve were taken without even their parents being aware of them [being] taken." Walmsley commented that "the condition of victimisation is recreated for the community every time a social worker parachutes into a community, makes a brief assessment, and then leaves with all the children at risk. This form of practice often reactivates the sixties scoop in the minds of the community."
Walmsley noted, however, that there is a reverse problem of Aboriginal children in care now being often "off-loaded" onto Aboriginal communities that do not have the resources to deal with them, a process that can exacerbate problems in fragile communities by introducing troubled children with no meaningful ties beyond ethnicity.
Canada's 1.4 million First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people disproportionately experience poor living conditions and substandard schooling, among other issues. A 2016 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 51% of First Nations children live in poverty. That increases to 60% for First Nations children who live on reserves, with poverty rates reaching 76% in Manitoba and 69% in Saskatchewan for First Nations children living on reserves. The study found poverty rates of 30% for non-status First Nations children, 25% for Inuit children, and 23% for Métis children. (Canada has an overall child poverty rate of 18%, ranking it 27th in the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.)
Cindy Blackstock, PhD, the executive director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada and a professor in the School of Social Work at McGill University, claims that funding for child and family services on reserves is insufficient. She believes that the Canadian government's funding amounts to discrimination against First Nations children. Canadian government documents support Blackstock's statements and show that Indigenous agencies receive 22-34% less in funding than provincial agencies.
Blackstock's organization and the Assembly of First Nations, a political organization representing all First Nations in Canada, took that concern to the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2007. Their complaint, which alleged that the Canadian government had a longstanding pattern of providing less government funding for child welfare services to First Nations children on reserves than is provided to non-Indigenous children, was referred to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.
The tribunal ruled in January 2016 that the Canadian government's failure to provide equitable and culturally based child welfare services to 165,000 First Nations children amounted to discrimination. The government has spent at least $5 million fighting the complaint and has not acted on that and three subsequent noncompliance orders.
On August 25, 2017, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) recommended for Canada to end its underfunding of First Nations, Inuit and Métis child and family services; ensure that all children, on and off reserve, have access to all services available to other children in Canada, without discrimination; implement Jordan's Principle fully to ensure access to services is not delayed or denied because of funding disputes between the federal, provincial and territorial governments; and address the root causes of displacement, such as poverty and poor housing, that disproportionately drive Indigenous children into foster care.
Richard Cardinal, a Métis child, was born in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. He entered the foster care system when he was four years old. In the care of Alberta Child Welfare, he had a total of 28 group care and foster placements, secured facilities and shelters. At 17, Richard hanged himself on June 26, 1984. A 1986 film made about his short life, Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child, was based on his personal diary and interviews with his brother Charlie and his foster parents.
Sydney Dion is an aboriginal man from Manitoba who was adopted by a family in the United States in 1971. The CBC program 8th Fire features his story about coming back to Canada. Dion saved his money so that he could find his family in Canada. When he arrived at the border, he was turned down: "they are aware that I was born here, but I am not a citizen here." He did not have a Canadian birth certificate, and his name had been changed. Therefore, he had no proof that he is a Canadian citizen. On his second try to get into Canada, he was successful. The border guard acknowledged that he was a minor when he was adopted and did not implicitly consent to becoming a United States resident and so allowed him to enter Canada without a passport.
In 2011, Taber Gregory, who was baptized Henry Desjarlais, was an aboriginal man from Cold Lake Nation, Alberta, who became the first child placed in the United States as part of the Sixties Scoop to be recognized by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In January 2015, via a civil class action suit served on the Federal Government of Canada, Wayne Snellgrove became the first child placed in the United States as part of the Sixties Scoop to be recognized by Canadian courts.
The StarPhoenix journalist Betty Ann Adam collaborated with filmmaker Tasha Hubbard on Birth of a Family, a National Film Board of Canada documentary about her own separation and reunification with three of her siblings. The film premiered at the 2017 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Adam approached Hubbard to document her story at the urging of a commissioner who served on Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Nakuset, who is Cree from La Ronge, Saskatchewan, was adopted by a Jewish family in Montreal when she was three. She is now the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montréal and draws on her adoptee experience in her work to improve the lives of urban Aboriginals. She sits on the Steering Committee of the Montréal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network. Nakuset produced and hosted the television series Indigenous Power and was voted "Woman of the Year 2014" by the Montreal Council of Women.
Ontario class action lawsuit
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In 2009, Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel filed a class action lawsuit in Ontario on behalf of Indigenous children affected by the Sixties Scoop. Her lawsuit, which claimed that she suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse after she was placed in the foster system as a child, was one of a series of class action lawsuits that had been launched in five provinces.
On February 14, 2017, Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in the case known as Brown v. Canada (Attorney General). Justice Belobaba found that Canada had breached its common law duty of care to
take reasonable steps to prevent on-reserve Indian children in Ontario, who had been placed in the care of non-aboriginal foster or adoptive parents, from losing their aboriginal identity.
Justice Belobaba, in his decision, also acknowledged the impact of the Sixties Scoop on survivors:
The Sixties Scoop happened and great harm was done.... The uncontroverted evidence of the plaintiff's experts is that the loss of their Aboriginal identity left the children fundamentally disoriented, with a reduced ability to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. The loss of Aboriginal identity resulted in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, unemployment, violence and numerous suicides.
On October 6, 2017, an $800 million settlement was announced. It will provide status First Nations and Inuit who were adopted out of their families and communities as part of the Sixties Scoop, with $25,000 to $50,000 in compensation, depending on the number of claimants who come forward. It will also establish a $50 million endowment for an Indigenous Healing Foundation. Non-status First Nations and Métis will not receive compensation under the settlement.
Jeffery Wilson, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, made this comment about the settlement:
Never before in history has a nation recognized, in this way, children's right to their cultural identities, and a government's responsibility to do everything in its power to protect the cultural identity of children in its care.
In Australia, a similar policy, which is sometimes referred to as the Stolen Generation, removed Aboriginal children from their families and placed them in orphanages, children's homes, or with non-Aboriginal foster parents.
In the United States, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), 25 to 35 percent of Native children nationwide were being removed from their families in 1978. Overarching federal legislation setting standards for child custody proceedings, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), was adopted that year. ICWA mandates that when a Native American child's parent dies, exhaustive efforts must be made to reunite the child with the surviving parent or other relatives. Children are placed with non-Native families only when an Native foster home, preferably one within the child's tribe, cannot be found.
Also in the United States, a similar term, Baby Scoop Era, refers to a period starting after the end of World War II and ending in 1972 that was characterized by an increased rate of premarital pregnancies, along with a higher rate of forced adoptions.
In the 1950s, there was another targeted removal of children from their families and communities in Canada. The children of a fringe group of Russian Doukhobors in British Columbia, called the Freedomites or Sons of Freedom, were taken by Canadian authorities.
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