Editor's note: As the Sixties Scoop lawsuit made its way through the legal system in Canada, adoptees and their parents had conflicting feelings about the issue, as these two companion pieces to “Adoptees Seeking Redress: Canada Confronts the Sixties Scoop” illustrate.
Children: Taught to Hide Her Heritage
Little effort was put into preserving adoptees’ Aboriginal culture once they were removed from reserves. Some were not even aware of their Aboriginal status. Others were told to keep it quiet.
Nakuset, who goes by just one name, was adopted at age three by a Jewish family and raised in the tony Westmount area of Montreal. Her adoptive mother told her she was picked—because she was “cute”—from a catalogue of Native children circulated by Montreal’s Jewish Family Services. She was told to tell people she was adopted from Israel. She went to Hebrew school, Jewish summer camp and was encouraged to date Jewish boys, “but I just never fit in,” says Nakuset, whose birth name, Margaret, was changed to Miriam when she was adopted and changed again at age 22 when a Mi’kmaq elder renamed her Nakuset.
Like many Aboriginal adoptees, Nakuset left home as soon as she could, when she was 18. She floundered for a few years and then gained back her Native status, which paid for a university degree. The only positive thing about her adoption was the relationship she had with her Jewish grandmother, who lived down the street and doted on her. “My bubbe was the most incredibly loving woman. She was my salvation, and she saw greatness in me.”
Today, Nakuset, 44, is the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, co-president of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network and host of the community TV show Indigenous Power. Last year, the Montreal Council of Women named her Woman of the Year. In her speech at the awards event, she thanked her deceased grandmother for believing in her.
As for her adoptive parents, she says in an interview, “I totally disappointed them. There is no relationship.”
Parents: The Best of Intentions
It isn’t difficult to find United Church families who adopted Aboriginal children during the scoop era. When contacted by The Observer, some were reluctant to share their stories. One parent, who adopted two Aboriginal children who have since died—one had fetal alcohol syndrome and the other schizophrenia—said it was too painful to discuss, stating simply in an e-mail, “Beautiful children; unhappy end to our story.”
Margaret Ward and her late husband, Jack, a psychiatrist, who were active at St. Andrew’s United in Sudbury, Ont., adopted two Aboriginal girls ages eight and 12 and made an effort to expose them to their culture by bringing them to powwows and on visits to their home reserve. Ward, 79, a retired college professor who now lives in Arizona, says the adoptions were done “with good intentions” and dislikes the term “Sixties Scoop” since it implies children were taken without good reason. “It denigrates the intentions of the people who were involved.” She says several siblings of her adopted daughters had early deaths. “I wonder what my daughters’ lives would have been like if they stayed.”
Very Rev. Robert Smith, a United Church moderator from 1984 to 1986, and his wife, Ellen, adopted an infant Aboriginal daughter, born to a teenage girl, 50 years ago. Their daughter pursued her Métis roots as an adult, earning a master of education with a focus on Aboriginal art and reconnecting with her birth parents in her 40s. The Smiths aren’t sure what to think of the term “Sixties Scoop,” but Robert says today he recognizes that “white social workers did not understand the family structure of Indian society. They had no concept of the extended family and the fact that for a child to be without their natural mother or father did not mean the child would be raised poorly or deprived, because other members of the extended family could take their place.” Adds Ellen, “Children were taken out of homes with no appreciation of their culture. In most cases, people did it with good motivation, but the philosophy behind it all was that the child’s culture had nothing to offer.” Robert Smith offered the United Church’s first apology to First Nations peoples in 1986.
Raven Sinclair, an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Regina, was adopted at age five by Rev. Robert Bater, a United Church minister and former principal of Queen’s Theological College, and his wife. She and her six siblings had been removed from their mother’s home in Saskatchewan due to neglect. Sinclair, 53, has nothing but good things to say about her late adoptive father, praising him for “doing some serious evaluation about the motive for my adoption” and admitting he had been “misled” about the idea that she had been “rescued” from the reserve.
“He was accountable and ethical and anti-racist. He recognized that our lifestyle, even in a well-intentioned, United Church, white, middle-class family was racist,” she says. “Growing up, I had so many people say to me, ‘You’re not like other Indians. You’re lucky you were adopted away from all that.’”
Her father, she says, came to regret her adoption, even though he loved her. “He knew that despite their good intentions, they couldn’t give me what I needed: my Indigenous heritage, my language, my culture. People can have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.”
This article was originally published in April 2015 in The United Church Observer magazine. Reprinted with permission.