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What is the Sixties Scoop?
What has come to be known as the Sixties Scoop refers to a number of policies that were enacted by Canadian provincial and territorial child welfare authorities starting in the mid-1950s.
These policies resulted in thousands of Indigenous children being taken from their families and communities without consent and placed into foster homes. Many of the children were then adopted by non-Indigenous, mostly white households throughout Canada and the United States.
Being physically, culturally, emotionally and spiritually cut off from their birth families, communities and Nations continues to affect Survivors of the Sixties Scoop, their descendants, their communities and their Nations many years later.
History of the Sixties Scoop
The practice of removing children from Indigenous communities without their families’ consent has existed since European settlers formed colonies here on Indigenous territories, now referred to as Canada. The Sixties Scoop is one of many examples of centuries-long government efforts to assimilate Indigenous cultures and Peoples into Canada.
‘Sixties Scoop’ refers to a process that began after 1951, as the government started to phase out mandatory residential schools. Amendments to the Indian Act meant that individual provinces now had authority over certain areas, including Indigenous child welfare. By the mid-1960s, the number of Indigenous children in the child welfare system in some provinces was over 50 times more than it had been at the beginning of the 1950s.
Decisions to place children in care at that time were made by social workers who were primarily non-Indigenous and who worked within a white-Euro-Canadian values system. Most of these workers were not familiar with the culture and history of the Indigenous communities they worked in. What they called proper care was based on their own lived experience rooted in a European-Canadian system of values, and training that did not include exposure to or understanding of Indigenous family structures and caregiving, nor of Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing and being.
Social workers would seize children without consent, often as a matter of routine, using reasoning that was deeply entrenched in racism. Observations of practices that were not typical of European-Canadian families, like traditional diets for example, resulted in loving and stable families being pulled apart. Issues like poverty and unemployment that disproportionately affect Indigenous communities due to centuries of discriminatory policies and structural violence were also seen as sufficient grounds for the apprehension of children from otherwise happy homes.
The Sixties Scoop policies are just one phase of a larger history that is characterized by physical, structural, environmental and cultural violence against Indigenous Peoples. Social workers and welfare authorities whose mandates should have been to exert a positive influence in historically under-serviced and under-resourced communities instead chose to remove children from their homes and tear families apart.
This resulted in the Survivors of the Sixties Scoop growing up with a loss of their heritage and sense of belonging. Survivors have reported that the disconnect from their culture, birth families and Nations led to feelings of confusion, isolation and shame.
Many administrators of Sixties Scoop policies believed that removing children from their Nations at a young enough age would mean that they would not grow into their Indigenous identities. In practice, this meant that Survivors had to live through years of linguistic, spiritual and legal loss. This generation was robbed of the ability to speak their Nations’ languages, of spiritual connection to ancestral land, and, for many, of the various legal and cultural implications of having Indian status.
Many surviving adoptees reported physical, emotional and sexual abuse from the families they were placed with. Even children placed in caring homes faced emotional distress and felt a lack of belonging, as their families were unable to provide them with the cultural connections necessary for healthy development.
All of the impacts described here cannot be seen as a simple chapter of history. They are still alive today and as relevant as ever to the now-adult adoptees, their nations, their families and their descendants.
The first report on the Sixties Scoop was published in 1983 by a researcher for the Canadian Council on Social Development. A judge from the Provincial Court of Manitoba published another highly critical review of Sixties Scoop policies in 1985. That report concluded that “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”, and that “cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner.” The report also included a series of recommendations for policy changes.
These reports led to a number of policy changes in the 1980s and the 1990s, such as the creation of the First Nations Child and Family Services program. This program gave more authority over child and family services to local bands and included a new rule that gave priority to extended family and other Indigenous families in the adoption of Indigenous children. This allowed closer alignment with the principles described in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as the right to protect and control cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.
In the past 10 years, there have been apologies, settlements and class action lawsuits regarding the Sixties Scoop. These have resulted in the federal government being found liable for the harms inflicted on Survivors and in the creation of a fund set aside to compensate those with eligible claims. The process through which these claims are assessed has been the subject of criticism by Indigenous groups for being rooted in euro-centric principles and for requiring claimants to prove the injustices inflicted on them without providing them with culturally appropriate emotional support. Nevertheless, the settlement did lead to the establishment of the National Healing Foundation, an independent organization that accompanies Survivors and their descendants along their healing journey. The foundation supports “cultural reclamation and reunification, holistic wellness services, advocacy, commemoration, and educational initiatives”.
Despite these recent advances, much work remains to be done to provide healing to Survivors of Sixties Scoop policies, including processing all remaining claims and ensuring that all ‘scooped’ children and their descendants are able to reconnect with their communities.
It is important to highlight that despite these legal processes and admissions of responsibility, Indigenous children are still overrepresented in child welfare systems today. According to the 2016 Census, Indigenous children account for 7.7% of the total child population of Canada, but make up 52.2% of children in foster care. In Ontario Indigenous children represent approximately 30% of foster children, despite making up only 4.1% of the population under age 15. Many Indigenous advocacy groups view the current child welfare system as a continuation of the centuries-long assimilation efforts.
Indigenous parents are disproportionately affected by birth alerts. A birth alert is when child protection services contact a hospital to notify staff that they consider an expecting parent to be “high risk” and unable to care for their baby. The hospital will then notify the child welfare agency as soon as the baby is born. These alerts can lead to newborns being seized within hours of birth without their parents’ consent and being placed into the child welfare system.
The practice was officially discontinued in provinces like Ontario and Alberta between 2019 and 2021, and British Columbia even deemed it illegal and unconstitutional. Birth alerts, though heavily criticized, are still common in Quebec.
Even in the provinces and territories where birth alerts are no longer practiced, their legacy remains. The fear of having one’s children apprehended combined with the ongoing systemic racism in healthcare systems leads to a mistrust of healthcare providers and of government services as a whole. This in turn prevents many from accessing the resources and supports that they are entitled to and may need, impacting another generation of Indigenous children.
A starting point to acting in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples is learning about the history behind their current struggles.
If you want to learn more about the Sixties Scoop era and how it affected and continues to affect Survivors, their communities and Nations, you can consult these multimedia resources:
- Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo - A CBC podcast that follows a Cree family's search for their missing sister and attempts to uncover why she and her five siblings were taken into government care in the early 1970s and adopted into non-Indigenous families in Canada and the United States. Hosted by Cree investigative reporter Connie Walker.
- Birth of a Family: How 4 siblings reunited for the first time - A short documentary by Tasha Hubbard that follows three sisters and a brother, adopted as infants into separate families across North America during the Sixties Scoop as they meet together for the first time.
- Separating children from parents - A 4-minute CBC segment that provides a general overview of the Sixties Scoop.
- Coming Home: Sixties Scoop Survivors Reclaim Their Culture - A video documenting a sharing circle that took place between Sixties Scoop Survivors, Indigenous leaders and front-line workers. From Ontario Public Service Employees Union's Indigenous Mobilization Team.
- Indigenous Foundations - A website developed by the University of British Columbia’s First Nations Studies Program that hosts information on key topics relating to the histories, politics, and cultures of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.
This article was written by settlers in what we know today as Canada. The aim of this article is to provide an information overview of Indigenous history and issues for newcomers to Canada who may not be familiar with them. This is a work in progress that may change as our team continues to do the necessary work to engage respectfully with Indigenous Peoples. We encourage our readers to seek out information and testimonies directly from Indigenous Peoples and organizations.
December 16, 2021