Chief Marcia Brown Martel of the Beaverhouse First Nation near Kirkland Lake, Ontario, the lead plaintiff in a class action that was one of the cases settled on Friday, said she hoped the settlement would lead to further reforms of child welfare systems.
“I have great hope that because we’ve reached this plateau, this will never, ever happen in Canada again,” Chief Brown Martel said at the announcement.
In 1967 or 1968, when she was just 4 or 5 years old, Ms. Brown Martel and her sister were placed in foster care by child welfare workers. She was repeatedly taken away from her reserve, perhaps 10 times, until 1972, when she was adopted by a non-indigeneous family in Southern Ontario.
Commonly known as the Sixties Scoop — because the children were “scooped” from their communities — the adoption program has generally received less attention than the residential school system.
Under the school program, which began in the 19th century, indigenous children were placed in schools far from their homes with the intention of wiping out indigenous cultures and languages.
In 2008, the Conservative government in power apologized for the residential program as part of a settlement of a class action that also included paying 1.6 billion Canadian dollars to survivors of the system. The settlement created a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which produced a long list of recommendations, most of which Mr. Trudeau has promised to implement.
The adoption program first came under severe criticism in a Manitoba government report in 1985. Two years ago, Manitoba became the first province to apologize for its role in the program.
A class action in Ontario saying that the government failed to fulfill its obligations to indigenous people in the program dragged on for eight years before being decided in the plaintiffs’ favor in February.
If approved by the court, the settlement announced on Friday will resolve that case and some others. The government is still negotiating with plaintiffs in other cases, which unlike the Ontario case also involve provinces and include accusations that the plaintiffs were abused by foster or adoptive families.
The government is also still working out the amounts for individual settlements and the wording of an official apology. The settlement announced Friday will include 50 million Canadian dollars for a foundation to educate adoptees about their native languages and cultures.
In an earlier ruling in the case, Justice Edward P. Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice called the adoption program “well intentioned but profoundly uninformed” and found that it had a profound effect on the children throughout their lives.
“There is also no dispute about the fact that great harm was done,” he wrote in his February decision. “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. The removed children vanished ‘with scarcely a trace.’ ”
The program was, in some ways, a successor to the residential school system, which was winding down during the 1960s.
While the federal government was responsible for the welfare of indigenous children — something that is a provincial obligation when it comes to all other children — it had no cohesive plan for delivering such services. So in 1965, it began giving provinces money to handle the job through their children’s aid societies and other organizations.
Government officials, at least during the planning stages, made efforts to ensure that the new system did not erode indigenous culture and identities — unlike the practices in the earlier residential school program.
In the adoption program, the provinces were told they had to consult indigenous leaders about how the services should be administered and delivered. In Ontario, Justice Belobaba ruled, that never happened.
The result was a culture clash.
Evidence presented during a 2010 hearing in the Ontario case showed that “in aboriginal communities there is no concept of adoption or wardship because all children are regarded as a communal responsibility.”
At the same time, social workers without any training in indigenous life or culture arrived in aboriginal communities and removed children from situations in which, the court found, they were not neglected or in danger. The arrangements were simply different from how life was structured in white Canada.
The nonnative families the children ended up with ranged widely from abusive to loving and caring. But rarely did they educate the children about their backgrounds. Some children were told by adoptive families that their birth parents were Spanish or Italian.
The government kept a special registry of the children who were adopted, the court was told, but never contacted the children, leaving it up to their adoptive parents to tell them about payments and rights they were entitled to. It appears that few did.
While it was not the program’s intention, Justice Belobaba wrote that it may have been a more potent method of assimilation than the residential school system.
“Residential schools incarcerated children for 10 months of the year, but at least the children stayed in an aboriginal peer group; they always knew their First Nation of origin and who their parents were, and they knew that eventually they would be going home,” he wrote, adding that not only were adopted children completely isolated from their culture, “Even their birth names were erased, often forever.”
The program ended in Ontario in 1984 when the province changed its child welfare laws to recognize indigenous cultures and to require that if aboriginal children had to be taken from their parents, they should remain in their communities whenever possible.
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