Co-directors Elaine Kicknosway, Colleen Cardinal and Duane Morrisseau Beck of the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network. (Courtesy Colleen Cardinal)
An Ontario judge has ruled that Canada failed to take reasonable steps to prevent thousands of First Nations children who were placed with non-Indigenous families during the so-called Sixties Scoop.
“It is a great day in Canada when Canada’s judicial system chooses to say that our children are so valuable, sacred and precious that we will protect them by law. What a day this is,” said Marcia Brown, the lead plaintiff, at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Siding with the plaintiffs, Ontario Superior Court justice Edward Belobaba found Canada had breached its “duty of care” to the children.
“There is also no dispute about the fact that great harm was done. The ‘scooped’ children lost contact with their families. They lost their aboriginal language, culture and identity. Neither the children nor their foster or adoptive parents were given information about the children’s aboriginal heritage or about the various educational and other benefits that they were entitled to receive,” Belobaba wrote in the decision, which was released Tuesday.
The class action lawsuit, which was launched eight years go, sought $1.3 billion on behalf of around 16,000 Indigenous children in Ontario who claimed they were harmed by being placed in non-Indigenous homes during the Sixties Scoop.
While the decision paves the way for an assessment of damages the government would have to pay, many questions are left unanswered for adoptees who were excluded from the class action.
“What about all the rest of us?” said Kahnawa’kehró:non Linda Hemlock. “I think that every Native child who was in the Sixties Scoop should be compensated for their cultural loss, their identity, everything that pertains to us being Native. How can you be Native in a white home?”
Hemlock (nee Eugene) is Shuswap from British Columbia and spent her childhood in a residential school until she was 12 years old, before her and her four siblings were put in non-Indigenous foster homes away from their community – three were eventually adopted.
“I went to stay with my grandmother for two years, then they said because my grandmother was getting old, she wasn’t able to take care of us, so they took us,” said Hemlock.
“When I was raised, we never had any ceremonies. Our culture was lost, our language was lost. We were raised to be white kids.”
As a young adult, Hemlock jumped on a caravan bus and traveled to Ottawa to start a new a life. It’s where she met a group of Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake, and decided to move to the community, where she met and married her husband Hayden Hemlock.
“When I was a little girl, I always wanted to get far away from home,” said Hemlock. “When I came over here and went to a couple of tobacco burnings and meetings, I said this is the kind of environment that I would love to live in.”
The Sixties Scoop had a significant impact on Hemlock and her siblings.
“We don’t even know each other – I’m in my early 60s and my younger siblings are in their 50s and we’re just getting to know each other,” she said.
“We don’t know anything about ourselves. Today, I only know a few words of my language. I’ve learned more over here with Mohawks and their culture than I ever did with my own. I appreciate it.”
Even some adoptees who were raised in Ontario were excluded from the class action.
“You had to have been taken from the reserve in Ontario and experience your loss and denial in a white home, so that excludes hundreds of us – maybe even thousands because a lot of were taken from out west,” said Colleen Cardinal, a co-director of the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network.
Cardinal, originally from Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, was adopted by a non-Indigenous family when she was two years old and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
“I feel like Ontario is actually responsible for my adoption because they’re the ones that brought me here. The way they did it, they solicited us to Catholic or Christian or Protestant homes, as Ontario was considered affluent at that time compared to the wild, wild west,” she said.
While it is not clear how the ruling will affect litigation in other provinces, Cardinal said the judge’s decision is still hopeful for adoptees such as her.
“A lot of us adoptees are happy regardless if we’re out of province or not because it is validation. The federal government has acknowledged that something wrong happened and that the state is responsible for it,” she said. “That definitely has precedent for other class actions.”
Every year, Cardinal along with a group of other adoptees living in Ottawa, organize an annual national gathering for survivors, with the next schedule for September 28 – October 1.
“For us, this is a historic moment, but we still have lots of work to do. There’s so many other things that are going on besides just a class action, it’s a monetary win and validation, but we still have our own work to do in healing and retaining or re-acquiring our culture,” said Cardinal.
“For the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network, we’re encouraging people to take care of each other and to continue doing that work. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon and we all want to win in the end.”
This story originally appeared in the February 17, 2017 issue of The Eastern Door.