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Adoption as Cultural Annihilation

A column by Chelsea Vowel about adoption.

If you've heard the term 60s scoop and thought it had something to do with ice-cream in ye olden days, I'm here to enlighten you. I prefer the term stolen generations, because the scooping I'm about to discuss didn't end in the '60s, and arguably still goes on today.

I am referring to the wholesale removal of aboriginal children from their families.

In the mid '60s, the federal and provincial governments collaborated to provide child welfare coverage in First Nations communities. Before this, no real system was in place for First Nations people.

The similarity to tactics used during the height of the residential school system is eerie. Aboriginal children were taken en masse from their families and adopted out into non-Native families:

Child welfare workers removed Aboriginal children from their families and communities because they felt the best homes for the children were not Aboriginal homes. The ideal home would instill the values and lifestyles with which the child welfare workers themselves were familiar: white, middle-class homes in white, middle-class neighbourhoods. Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal parents and families were deemed to be "unfit."

Research has shown that in British Columbia alone, the percentage of native children in the care of the child welfare system went from almost none to one-third in only 10 years as a result of this expansion. This was a pattern that repeated itself all across Canada.

There is evidence that at least 11,132 status Indian children were removed from their homes between 1960 and 1990. However, it is clear the numbers are in fact much higher than this, as birth records were often closed and status not marked down on foster records. Some estimate the number, which included non-status and Métis children, is more like 20,000.

The '60s scoop picked up where residential schools left off, removing children from their homes, and producing cultural amputees.

Child welfare reforms not working

In the late '70s, it was recognized that the approach up to that point was inadequate. There were efforts made to turn more power over to First Nations themselves and to keep children in their communities rather than being adopted out across Canada, into the U.S. and even overseas.

In 1982, Manitoba Judge Edwin C. Kimelman was appointed to head an inquiry into the child welfare system and how it was impacting native peoples. He had this to say:

“It would be reassuring if blame could be laid to any single part of the system. The appalling reality is that everyone involved believed they were doing their best and stood firm in their belief that the system was working well. Some administrators took the ostrich approach to child welfare problems -- they just did not exist. The miracle is that there were not more children lost in this system run by so many well-intentioned people. The road to hell was paved with good intentions, and the child welfare system was the paving contractor.”

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Nor was this his strongest condemnation of the process, and he made it clear that the system was a form of cultural genocide (page 44).

Unfortunately, by 2002 over 22,500 native children were in foster care across Canada, more than the total taken during the '60s scoop and certainly more than had been taken to residential schools. Aboriginal children are six to eight times more likely to be placed in foster care than non-native children. To ignore the repeated attempts to annihilate aboriginal cultures and instead place the blame solely on "dysfunctional native families" is to take an utterly ahistorical and abusive view.

“...[this] over not rooted in their indigenous race, culture and ethnicity. Rather, any family with children who has experienced the same colonial history and the resultant poverty, social and community disorganization...may find themselves in a similar situation.”

Systemic discrimination and underfunding

On April 18th, a historic ruling came down from the Federal Court regarding the underfunding of child welfare services on reserves. This case is a judicial review of a decision made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which dismissed the claims on a technicality.

The Federal Court has sent the case back to the CHRT for a full hearing:

“Repeated studies have shown funding for child welfare on reserves is far below that available to children off-reserve and results in far lower levels of service. In particular, the lack of funds available for programs that can help families before they are broken up results in far higher rates of children being taken into foster care on reserves than off reserves.”

No situation involving children in need of protective services is a happy one. The stories regardless of the background of the child will chill your blood, and rightfully so. But when only 21 per cent of children in a province like Manitoba are native, yet account for 84 percent of children in permanent care, something is deeply, and terribly wrong. Something that cannot be chalked up to just bad parenting.

The main reason aboriginal children enter the child protection system is due to "neglect." Neglect in cases involving aboriginal children is driven primarily by three structural risk factors: poverty, inadequate housing and substance misuse.

Inadequate housing is a serious, systemic problem in many First Nations communities. Overcrowding, lack of indoor plumbing or potable water, mould-infested homes and crumbling infrastructure all play a part in what constitutes "inadequate housing." It is also a factor that is rarely something the families in question can directly control. Attawapiskat recently provided stark evidence of this.

Aboriginal children and their families are being punished for being faced with unacceptable living conditions that no one living in Canada should have to contend with.

The legacy of over 100 years of concerted cultural abuse, particularly directed at taking children away from their families, has taken its toll on our communities. There is no denying it. In my opinion, the question now needs to be: Will Canada acknowledge this and do what it takes to redress these wrongs?

A more detailed version of this article was posted on the author's blog, âpihtawikosisân.