“Saving” the Child: The Genocidal Connections Between Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, and Contemporary Foster Care

Molly Swain


   This paper will demonstrate that contemporary Child and Family Services and Child Welfare practices are extensions of assimilatory and genocidal state policies like the Indian Residential School system and the Sixties Scoop. It will also explore some of the ways in which these policies are gendered and work to especially marginalize Indigenous women. In order to trace the history of state interventions into Indigenous families, we need to examine how settler-colonialism structures past and present exploit vulnerable populations, particularly through gendered and racialized constructions of Indigenous women, mothers, and families.

   The importation of Christian Euro-patriarchy to Indigenous nations reorganized the social structures of many communities. Whereas many cultures (this work focuses predominantly on Cree, Anishnaabe, and Métis peoples) had traditionally egalitarian social roles — with children, elders, and women as the center of communities — Euro-patriarchy began imposing vertical, hierarchical roles: the male head of family, the subordinate wife, and an emphasis on “nuclear family” structures instead of large extended family and clan networks  (Anderson 29; 99).

   The 1876 Indian Act, “Canada’s main legal instrument of colonization” (Ouellette 39), legislated gender inequality. Under Section 12(1)b, Indigenous women who married non-Native men lost their status, but non-Native women who married Indigenous men gained status (Green 145). Women would not regain status if they divorced their non-Native husbands, which often meant legally enforced poverty for widows and women whose partners were abusive. Women actually died of exposure in their own homes on reserves because their water and electricity were cut off after they were no longer entitled to any band monies or services (Rebick 108).

   In order to avoid this, many Indigenous women chose not to marry. Indian agents despaired over all of the “unchurched” relationships on the reserves, and of course blamed Indigenous women as being overly sexual and animalistic in their desires. Indigenous women faced a double bind: marriage could often lead to subservience, abuse, and involuntary enfranchisement, yet remaining unmarried could put them under the scrutiny of the Indian Agent (Brownlie 166).

   The rise of Residential Schools made the latter choice even more fraught. Along with increased likelihood of poverty, Indigenous families that did not conform to Euro-Christian standards of morality and propriety — two heterosexual parents in a “churched” or married relationship with a stable source of income and a male head of household — were especially targeted by Residential School officials and truant officers  (B. Johnston 19-20).

   It is also interesting to note that Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were initially only enshrined in the Indian Act until 1892, when they were adopted into the Criminal Code of Canada. (Sayers, www.titsandsass.com) Legislation governing “Houses of Prostitution” — precursors to contemporary bawdy house legislation — explicitly included wigwams, which provided a reason for government officials to enter Indigenous homes on spurious grounds.

   This set of laws played into tropes about the degenerate and sexualized character of Indigenous women and provided yet another legitimate avenue to steal Native children enroll them in Residential Schools. The nominal reason for enrollments was to provide the children of unwed or “unfit” mothers with a Christian upbringing and to socialize them away from the “savagery” of their parents — to “kill the Indian and save the child,” to borrow from Carlisle Indian Industrial School founder’s Richard Henry Pratt’s famous phrase.

   Single Indigenous mothers, many of whom often had more children still in the home, had the fewest avenues of recourse and the least power to recover their children. As has been well-documented, severe emotional, psychological, physical, and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in the schools led to intergenerational trauma, interpersonal violence, family breakages, and a lack of healthy parenting and inter-relational skills (Trocmé et al. 2083). This history rendered Indigenous survivors of Residential Schools vulnerable to addiction, abuse, and violence.

   Residential Schools operated until 1996, when the Gordon Residential School at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, was shut down (CBC News, www.cbc.ca). However, the closure of the last residential school did not signify the end of coercive government imposition on Indigenous families. The decades following the Second World War saw a new form of intervention inflicted on Indigenous families: adoption. From the 1960s to the late-1980s, over 11,000 status Indian children were adopted out to non-Native families (Smith www.briarpatchmagazine.com). The rate of adoptions was so remarkable that this time period came to be known as the Sixties Scoop. Moreover, because the known figure does not include non-registered status, Métis, Inuit, or non-status Aboriginal children, the actual number of children taken away from their families is likely far higher (Trocmé et al. 579).

   Children were placed into state care temporarily or adopted directly into non-Native — predominantly white, middle-class — families. Provincial birth certificates carrying the names of birth parents were sealed, rendered inaccessible to both parents and children except in the event of a court order. In their place, new certificates with names of adoptive parents were issued. (“Adoption Information”, www.servicealberta.ca) There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that original birth certificates of Indigenous adoptees were systematically destroyed by some provincial governments. This procedure, if it did take place, would be an assimilatory act to ensure that children adopted out of Native families would have absolutely no legal connection to their biological parents. The lack of legal connection erased not only legal Indian status, but also official non-status; a clear extension of federal Indian Act enfranchisement policies that functioned to disappear Indigenous peoples.

   Up to 70% of children adopted into non-Native families were returned into state care. Adoptees often suffered racist abuse at the hands of their adoptive families.  Stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as lazy, dirty, and prone to obesity and addiction often framed the types of abuse to the children experienced — their food and movement would be restricted, for example. Indigenous girls were subjected to abuse that reflected stereotypes of Indigenous women as promiscuous, sex workers, and unwed mothers (Smith, www.briarpatchmagazine.com).

   Like Residential Schools, adopted children were often isolated from their families and cultures. Some adoptive parents tried to foster cultural and racial pride in their children, but more often children were forced to deal with the consequences of living in an extremely anti-Aboriginal society without the empowering frameworks of culture and tradition. There is limited information on the extent of adoptee abuse and its effects on the children as they grew into adulthood, but it’s safe to extrapolate that children who suffered abuse during the Sixties Scoop likely suffered many of the same types of trauma endured by their Residential School survivor predecessors.

   During the late-80s and early-90s, research began to show the negative effects of adopting Indigenous children into non-Native families. In response, some provinces made limited changes to their foster care and adoption policies. Yet the extent that these policies are respected is limited even today and many Indigenous children continue to be placed with non-Native foster and adoptive families (Trocmé et al. 579). I will discuss this in greater depth below.

   Moving forward to contemporary foster care policies, it is imperative to examine what the Indian Act has to say about the jurisdiction of Child and Family Services over Indigenous children:

Section 88: Subject to the terms of any treaty and any other Act of Parliament, all laws of general application from time to time in force in any province are applicable to and in respect of Indians in the province, except to the extent that those laws are inconsistent with this Act or the First Nations Fiscal Management Act, or with any order, rule, regulation or law of a band made under those Acts, and except to the extent that those provincial laws make provision for any matter for which provision is made by or under those Acts (Indian Act 2014).

   While Section 88 does not explicitly mention children, foster care, or adoption, it nominally sets out jurisdictional boundaries and responsibilities for provincial and federal governments. The Section states that general provincial laws — for example speeding fines, liquor laws, and Child Services laws — apply to Indians under the Indian Act except when they violate treaty or band policy, or where federal legislation takes precedence, or where provincial laws contradict other Indian Act policy.

   If this sounds confusing, it is because the Indian Act has been superbly designed to be especially dense and contradictory, and to provide loopholes through which the federal government can justify limiting, withholding, or modifying the services it provides to status Indians. Section 88 creates a significant legal grey area when it comes to funding welfare services for Indigenous children.  Currently, the federal government is technically supposed to fund services for status First Nations children, while the provinces are technically supposed to fund services for non-status, Métis, and Inuit children. Patrick Johnston states that,

The federal government accepts its constitutional right and responsibility to legislate on behalf of Indians to provide services.  But it also argues that it can choose not to exercise that right, in which case the normal division of powers spelled out in the British North America Act prevails (P. Johnson 4).

   Yet in reality, despite these technical responsibilities, the federal government has so drastically underfunded their services for Native children that it has faced a Human Rights Tribunal case from Cindy Blackstock and Lawrence Joseph claiming racial discrimination (Blackstock et al.). Many provinces are also underfunding their Aboriginal child welfare programs. Provincial and federal governments defer their responsibilities between each other: the provinces claim that they will not pick up federal slack  while the federal government exploits the ambiguity of Section 88 to claim that the programs are the responsibility of provinces (P. Johnston 5-6).

   In the past six months, the issue has become even more complex. The recent court case Daniels v. Canada has expanded the legal definition of Indian to include 200,000 Métis and 400,000 non-Status First Nations peoples, which brings them under the legislative and financial jurisdiction of the federal government (Daniels v Canada 2013).  Predictably, the government is appealing the ruling, and it is likely to be years, if not decades, before a final decision is reached. In the meantime, the children of these 600,000 newly “legal” or status Indigenous people could be caught in the same jurisdictional web as their First Nations counterparts.

   In midst of all this legal and political wrangling are the children. Indigenous children are hugely overrepresented in foster care across Canada, in some places making up nearly 80% of the children in care even though Indigenous children account for less than 5% of the total child population in Canada (Trocmé et al. 578). Despite a significant amount of research and many, many personal testimonies that highlight the negative consequences of placing Indigenous children with non-Native caregivers, the practice actually increased 71.5% between 1995 and 2001. As of 1998, only 2.5% of Indigenous children for adoption were placed into Indigenous homes. There are more Indigenous children in state care today than at the height of the Residential School era (Trocmé et al. 578).

   Indigenous families are nearly twice as likely as white families to be chosen for investigation by Child and Family Services. Of those investigated, over twice the number of Indigenous children as white children are placed in out-of-home care. 35-60% of these cases will be justified on the basis of “neglect” (Trocmé et al. 2082).

   Neglect is a serious issue that can have deeply negative consequences for children, but research shows that, when it comes to Indigenous families, neglect is often a code word for poverty. According to Child and Family Services, neglect is associated with several “risk factors” that include income, the number of people in the home, single parenting, maternal age (that is, young mothers) unemployment/underemployment, parental health, substance abuse, and a lack of social supports (Ibid 2082). Furthermore, while substance abuse concerns are significantly higher for Indigenous households, research has shown that Aboriginal status affects the outcome of cases involving substance abuse, with stereotypes of the “Drunk Indian” leading to an overestimation of alcohol consumption and increasing the likelihood of children being taken from the home (Trocmé et al., 595).

   All of this is tied to colonialism and the deeply embedded racism in Canadian society, as well as the overwhelming effects of intergenerational trauma. Trocmé et al. have stated that “child removal policies may have prevented transmission of healthy parenting skills, instilled doubts about traditional parenting, or resulted in negative behaviours acquired in abusive, neglectful or culturally inappropriate settings” (2083). These factors have also been directly linked to increased substance abuse, depression, and other mental and social issues that can affect parenting. In spite of this, research has shown that Indigenous children who stay with their families are not more likely than white children to have experienced “emotional and physical harm related to maltreatment” (Trocmé et al. 596).

   Children placed into foster care today experience many of the same abuses as those adopted out during the Sixties Scoop. Limited research has been done on these conditions, but harrowing information has been recently uncovered. In Alberta, it was discovered that over 285 children, many of them Indigenous, have died in foster care in the past fifteen years (Kleiss www.edmontonjournal.com). The actual number is likely much higher but red tape, dense bureaucracy, and a lack of accountability between the various institutions overseeing Child and Family Services in the province are stalling, and possibly even preventing, full information from coming to light.

   Beyond Alberta, statistics are likely similar in provinces with analogous welfare policies. Indigenous children are dying and sometimes outright murdered in state care. To account for the full extent of this harm, we must also factor in the children who age out of the system at ages 18 or 21, who receive extremely limited support for dealing with the consequences of trauma and abuse.

   I would like to emphasize that I am not suggesting that all foster parents or adoptive parents are abusive, racist, or culturally insensitive. What I am suggesting is that for well over a century, the Residential School system, the Sixties Scoop, and current federal and provincial Child and Family Services policies are successive  tactics of genocide and assimilation to “kill the Indian” in generations of children through removal policies.

   Finally, I would like to say that I do not think that relying on assistance or social programming from settler governments will be effective. Setter-colonialism, since its inception, has been removing Indigenous peoples from our lands and disappearing us through assimilation and genocide. Thus, settler legal, political, social, and economic systems are incommensurable with liberatory decolonial projects (Tuck et al. 28-36).

   This said, the implementation of social programs, support, and assistance by and for Indigenous peoples is absolutely necessary for moving forward. Indigenous-led projects and movements that centre women and children, that foster the reclamation of cultural pride, that explicitly work to dismantle Euro-patriarchal social relations, and that stand in opposition to government interventions into Indigenous families are growing across the country. These movements have powerful potential to prevent further abuses and to ensure that Indigenous children are truly “saved” from genocidal state policies.




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