A British Columbia First Nations woman is spearheading a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against Canada’s government for handing over responsibility for Indian child welfare to the provinces in the 1960s, which plaintiffs claim encouraged local governments to rip children from their aboriginal families and put them into foster care.
Damages could run into the millions of dollars for the victims, who were more often than not placed with non-Native families who did little or nothing to preserve their cultural heritage and identity. Indeed, the lawsuit filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, the so-called Sixties’ Scoop, in which thousands of Native children were taken from 1962 to 1996, “was just another way for the government to try to get the Indian out of us," said Sharon Russell, who filed the suit on May 31. Provinces were given financial incentives for each child put into care, according to Postmedia News.
Russell told Postmedia News that her family was “wiped out” when social workers took her and her four siblings away from their parents and split them up into various foster homes. She never saw one brother, Rodger, again, as he died in foster care, said the Fireweed Clan member of the Gitksan Nation.
“Ignoring its obligations to aboriginal children, the federal government took no steps to prevent them from losing their aboriginal identity and the opportunity to exercise their aboriginal and treaty rights when they were placed in foster homes and adopted by non-aboriginals,” said a press release from Russell’s legal firm, Klein Lyons, well known for its class-action suits.
This is the second suit of its kind in Canada. On October 18, 2010, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified a class action against the Canadian attorney general for making aboriginal children wards of the Crown between December 1, 1965, and December 31, 1984, according to the North Bay Nugget.
“This is a major victory for aboriginal CAS survivors everywhere," activist John Fox, from Wikwemikong, told the North Bay Nugget at the time. “We are now asking survivors to register with this class action."
Fox is one of approximately 16,000 victims from the province of Ontario who were taken from their families. That group has established a Facebook page to get people to register and to keep them updated.
Even though the suits could net victims millions, money is not the primary issue, said Jason Murray, one of Russell's attorneys.
"But the purpose of this lawsuit is for the survivors to seek justice for the wrongs that were done to them," Murray said in his firm's statement. "Just as the residential schools closed, aboriginal children were again taken away, into foster care."