In the next few months the Alberta NDP government, working with the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta (SSISA), is hosting a series of consultations in different cities across Alberta. Some of the stated goals of these consultations are “to help shape how our government can apologize in a way that is meaningful and promotes healing” and “[to] gain a deeper understanding of how the Sixties Scoop affected people’s lives.”. This move in Alberta follows the recently settled class-action lawsuits that will see the federal government pay between $550 million to $850 million to survivors of the Sixties Scoop.
The Sixties Scoop is one of many dark episodes in the history of the oppression of Indigenous people in Canada, and the effects are still being felt to this day. In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the Canadian government forcefully removed an unknown number of Indigenous children—estimates range from 5,000 to 30,000—from their families and communities. Provincial child protection agencies across Canada “scooped” Indigenous children away—many newly born—all in the name of the “best interests of the child”. Most were whisked away without the consent of their families or bands and then placed in the care of non-Indigenous foster or adoptive parents.
The story of Marcia Brown Martel, a Sixties Scoop survivor and Chief of Beaverhouse First Nation in northeastern Ontario, is a typical one. Martel told of how in 1967, at the age of four, she was taken away from her mother by “an officer [who] had a gun”. Years later as an adult, she could only find a one-page summary of her file from the child-welfare authorities. That meagre one-page file gave no explanation as to why she had been placed in foster care, and clearly fabricated her mother’s signature on the consent form. She then spent her childhood and teenage years being shuffled from one foster home to another, with some being abusive households.
This lack of stability took its mental toll on Martel. “I’d been fostered out to so many places, and all it did was prove to me nobody wanted me,” she shared. The scoop robbed her not only of her family, but also of her Algonquin language, culture, and identity. Much like the residential school survivors, the Sixties Scoop survivors suffer all kinds of mental, emotional and physical illnesses, which plunge many of them into the vicious cycle of poverty and substance abuse.
In practice, the Sixties Scoop was a continuation of the “kill the Indian in the child” policy which inspired a similar, but much wider and much more atrocious program known as the residential school system. As the Canadian government started phasing out the compulsory residential school system in the 1950s and ‘60s in response to increasing opposition—with the last residential school finally closed in 1996—the Scoop was brought in. Provincial child welfare services were extended to Indigenous children in 1951, and the discredited residential school system was in effect transitioned into child protection agencies. Instead of the missionary or the priest from the residential school era, we had social workers—with an occasional “officer with a gun”—knocking on the door of Indigenous families and taking away their children.
The Sixties Scoop led to a drastic overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. In 1951, only 29 Indigenous children were in provincial care in B.C. By 1964, that number increased fiftyfold to 1,466. By the 1970s, one in three Indigenous children in Canada were separated from their families through adoption or fostering. The Aboriginal Committee of the Family and Children’s Services Legislation Review Panel’s report Liberating Our Children describes the harsh reality of these homes:
“The homes in which our children are placed ranged from those of caring, well-intentioned individuals, to places of slave labour and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The violent effects of the most negative of these homes are tragic for its victims. Even the best of these homes are not healthy places for our children. Anglo-Canadian foster parents are not culturally equipped to create an environment in which a positive Aboriginal self-image can develop. In many cases, our children are taught to demean those things about themselves that are Aboriginal.”
During the 1980s the child welfare laws were changed so that bands could run their own social services. However, this did not eliminate the problem of overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system. Nearly half of all the foster children in the country are Indigenous, in spite of the fact that they only make up seven per cent of the child population in Canada. Indigenous children are still being forcefully taken from their families and communities. The most frequently cited reasons for this are poverty, poor housing and substance abuse. These factors are themselves products of the residential school, the Sixties Scoop, and the systemic and historical discrimination suffered by Indigenous communities.
In addition to oppression, marginalized Indigenous communities also suffer from increased capitalist exploitation. A recent study by the Conference Board of Canada shows how Indigenous workers earned between 15-19 per cent less than their non-Indigenous peers. The gap is much larger in the territories, with Indigenous workers in Nunavut earning 61 per cent less, in Yukon 38 per cent less, and in the Northwest Territories 46 per cent less. It is no wonder that 60 per cent of Indigenous children on reserves live in poverty. A vicious cycle is thus created that traps generation after generation of Indigenous youth in poverty and humiliating degradation.
The Sixties Scoop has formally ended, but the dire situation for Indigenous communities never ends. The federal government might have been forced to recognize the crimes of the Sixties Scoop, apologize and pay some compensation, but the legacy of this injustice remains. Today, the form of oppression has changed, but the essential content remains the same. We have no trust in the ability of the Canadian state, which promoted this crime, to resolve its effects now. Any native community that threatens a pipeline or mineral extraction will face new oppression. Organized workers must do everything in their power to support the just demands of Indigenous communities, give them the right to determine their own fate, and the resources to provide employment. One of the first tasks of a socialist Canada would be to set right this historical wrong of capitalist colonialism.