The Sixties Scoop: How Canada’s “Best Intentions” Proved Catastrophic

By Lloyd Dolha

In his seminal work, Native Children and the Child Welfare System, researcher Patrick Johnston coined the term “Sixties Scoop” to describe an alarming national phenomenon in which Status Indian children were taken from their homes and communities by provincial child welfare authorities to be placed in non-aboriginal foster homes for adoption. It is a term now deeply rooted in the Canadian political lexicon. In a 1983 report for the Canadian Council for Social Development, Johnston revealed a number of major factors that congealed in the 1960’s to facilitate the Sixties Scoop of aboriginal children across the nation.

In this chapter, we will examine the causal factors that underlie this alarming national trend, the current state of aboriginal child welfare, and the numerous First Nations initiatives that have emerged to combat this national tragedy. It is important to remind ourselves of these underlying causes because the negative effects of the Sixties Scoop live on today and are still being played out in the tragic stories of individuals in aboriginal communities and cities across Canada. Indeed, many would argue that the Sixties Scoop never ended and has instead increased in its intensity and scope.

As we have seen, the residential school experience was a devastating catastrophe for First Nations people. Thousands of aboriginal children were forced to attend these schools with the stated objective of cultural assimilation into the wider Canadian society. The residential school experience, in which physical and sexual abuse was common, left many Status Indians hostile and bitter. Aboriginal children placed in these schools often lost all meaningful contact with their families and communities.

The legacy of the residential school system had (and continues to have) profound negative impacts on aboriginal people. The loss of cultural values and self-esteem has clearly contributed to alcoholism, family breakdown, and violence. Alcoholism became rampant, in some cases consuming whole communities. Decades of forced assimilation into residential schools produced a widespread generational phenomenon among aboriginal children, their parents, and grandparents known as Residential School Syndrome (RSS).

It was in this context that provincial governments began to extend child welfare services to First Nations reserve communities across Canada through agreements reached with the federal government in the early and mid 1960’s. The move to extend these services was the result of major revisions to the Indian Act that were introduced in 1951. One of those changes was the addition of Section 88 of the Indian Act. Section 88 made provincial laws of “general application” that apply to all people (subject to certain restrictions) applicable to Status Indians on reserve in any province. Under the Canadian constitution, laws of general application such as child welfare legislation, fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces, while the federal government has the exclusive authority to enact legislation for “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians” under the jurisdiction of the Indian Act.

The Indian Act holds no provisions for the delivery of child welfare services, and while Canada has the constitutional authority to enact legislation on behalf of Status Indians, it has never chosen to do so. As an area of exclusive provincial responsibility, each of the ten provinces and two territories developed their own child welfare legislation with their own policies and methods for delivering those services.

The extension of child welfare and other social services on-reserve may have been seen as the most practical way of dealing with problems associated with life on Indian reserves in the 1960’s, and it may have been done with the best of intentions, but “little attention was paid to the effect that extending provincial services would have on Indian families and communities. Nor did there appear to be any concern that provincial services might not be compatible with the needs of Indian communities.”

Therein lies the heart of the problem that manifests itself even today. The major limitation of provincial jurisdiction is that as “laws of general application” the standards adopted under provincial legislation are necessarily standards required to serve the general population. Provincial legislatures of the day could not enact laws that specifically applied to the Indian population because that authority rested exclusively in the domain of the federal government. Thus, the special needs of Status Indian children could not be directly dealt with under existing provincial laws because Section 88 of the Indian Act relinquished the federal government from enacting specific First Nations child welfare legislation, despite the federal government’s constitutional responsibility for Status Indians. Johnston points out that as a result of the jurisdictional dispute, there has been a continual argument over which level of government has the legislative responsibility to provide child welfare services to First Nation reserves and who should pay for it.

The results of the expansion of provincial child welfare services were profound in their effects on aboriginal communities nationwide. Noting the scarcity of reliable data in the mid‑60’s, Johnston showed that in 1955, less than 1% of the children in the care of British Columbia’s child welfare branch were Status Indian children. By 1964, approximately 34 % of the children in care in B.C. were Status Indians. In other words, in less than ten years, the number of Status Indian children in B.C.’s child welfare system had jumped from almost zero to more than one-third—a pattern that was repeated in many other parts of Canada as well.

The actual term “Sixties Scoop” came from a long-time employee of the B.C. Ministry of Human Resources whom Johnston personally interviewed. This person “admitted that provincial social workers would, quite literally, scoop children from reserves on the slightest pretext. She also made it clear, however, that she and her colleagues sincerely believed that what they were doing was in the best interests of the children. They felt that the apprehension of Indian children from reserves would save them from the crushing poverty, unsanitary health conditions, poor housing, and malnutrition which were the facts of life on many reserves.”

According to Johnston, by the 1970’s Status Indian children represented between 40 and 50% of children taken into care in the province of Alberta. In Saskatchewan, they represented between 60 and 70% of the children in care, while in Manitoba, Status Indian children represented 50 to 60 % of the children in care. He estimated that nationally, Status Indian children were 4.5 times more likely than non-Indian children to be in the care of child welfare authorities. Rather than being an act of last resort, the apprehension of Indian children became the standard operating procedure.

In Manitoba, aboriginal people were increasingly disturbed by the removal of hundreds of their children in the Sixties Scoop. Statistics of the day revealed that in 1981 as many as 55% of aboriginal children in care were shipped out-of-province to the United States for adoption. By 1982, Manitoba was the only remaining province that allowed adoptions outside of Canada. In the face of emotionally-charged allegations by aboriginal leaders, the provincial government ordered an all-out stop to the practice of out-of-province adoptions and appointed Associate Chief Judge Edwin C. Kimelman of the provincial court’s family division, to lead an inquiry into the province’s child welfare system and its effect on aboriginal people.

In March 1982, Edwin Kimelman began hearings across the province about the phenomenon of the white adoption of aboriginal children from Manitoba First Nations. Kimelman reviewed 93 cases of adoption and found that no attempt had been made to secure aboriginal homes for aboriginal children. Over a period of 20 years, from the mid‑1960’s to the early 1980’s, Manitoba lost about 3,000 aboriginal children to white adoption. Kimelman concluded in his publication No Quiet Place: Review Committee on Indian and Métis Adoptions and Placements (1985) that “cultural genocide has taken place in a systematic and routine manner.” Kimelman further commented on the tendency of “social workers to make idealistic judgements about family functioning and [suggested that they] may view situations as neglect where no actual harm is likely to occur.” He said child welfare workers were “overzealous” in applying their authority, saying the workers were “well-intentioned, but misguided.”

Kimelman agreed with aboriginal leaders that their children were the victims of a policy of “wholesale exportation” to other provinces and the United States. He admitted, “It would be reassuring if blame could be laid to any single part of the system. The appalling reality is that everyone involved believed they were doing their best and stood firm in their belief that the system was working well … The miracle is that there were not more children lost in this system run by so many well-intentioned people. The road to hell was paved with good intentions, and the child welfare system was the contractor.”

The Kimelman report recommended sweeping changes to the province’s child welfare legislation so that the determination of the best interests of the child would include the consideration of “the child’s cultural and linguistic heritage.” The goal of child welfare, said Kimelman, should be to strengthen family ties, not to sever them. The Kimelman Report urged the province to make efforts to contact aboriginal children adopted out-of-province and offer them help in reconciling with their natural families and home communities

After the hearings concluded, Judge Kimelman stated, “When the Indian residential schools were operating, children were forcibly removed from their homes for the duration of the academic year. The children were punished if they used their own language, sang their own songs, or told their own stories. But at least under that system the children knew who their parents were, and they returned home for the summer months. With the closing of the residential schools, rather than providing the resources on reserves to build economic security and providing services to support responsible parenting, society found it easier and cheaper to remove the children from their homes and apparently fill the market demand for children in Canada and the U.S.”

According to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP 1996), statistics from the Department of Indian Affairs revealed that a total of 11,132 Status Indian children were adopted out largely to white, middle-class families between 1960 and 1990. That number is believed to be a conservative figure because many aboriginal children were not recorded as Status Indians in adoption or foster care records, nor were many Status Indian children recorded as such after adoption. Of the thousands of aboriginal children placed in foster or adoptive care, RCAP estimates that about 70% of those were adopted into such homes.

In the early 1980’s, First Nations and tribal councils who sought more culturally appropriate approaches to aboriginal child welfare developed a number of models for child and family services agencies. In recognition of this, by 1990 Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) brought forth the national First Nations Child and Family Services program to fund First Nations Child and Family Services (FNCFS) agencies. To facilitate these services, FNCFS agencies entered into two separate agreements, first with provincial or territorial governments, and second with the federal government. The provincial/territorial government agreements transfer authority to First Nations or tribal councils to administer child and family services on-reserve under provincial child welfare legislation. FNCFS agencies must then enter an agreement with INAC for funding to administer child and family services on reserve. This is done under INAC’s “Directive 20-1,” which is the national funding formula administered by the department (effective since April 1, 1991). It restricts funding to eligible children on reserve 0-18 years of age. Thus, the level of federal funding varies according to population and geographic location.

The directive’s policies further dictate that in most provincial jurisdictions, FNCFS agencies must be incorporated under existing provincial child welfare legislation, which requires that they comply with provincial legislation and standards. There is one exception in Ontario, where FNCFS agencies are funded by the province and later reimbursed by the federal government. Consequently, there is a complex three-party relationship between FNCFS agencies, the provinces, and INAC, all of whom are responsible for the funding and delivery of child and family services for First Nations in Canada. In June 2000, a joint policy review of Directive 20-1 by the Assembly of First Nations and INAC resulted in 17 recommendations for improvements in the current policy. Despite advances in provincial government policies in aboriginal child welfare and increasing First Nations control over child welfare structures, First Nations children are still three times more likely to be in state care than non-First Nations children. Conventional wisdom places the number of aboriginal children in care today at about 27,000, but best estimates place the number in care between 22,500 and 28,000.

During the Sixties Scoop, children were often sent to other provinces, the United States or even overseas. The white, middle-class families who took them in had no concept of the significance of aboriginal culture with its emphasis on the extended family or tight-knit community. Many of these children grew up largely alienated from their families and communities with little or no understanding of their own culture and identity. In their new environments, they were often discriminated against because of their race, and by the time they reached their mid-teens, the vast majority were running away repeatedly, abusing drugs and alcohol, or turning to crime as a result of identity crises.

Though many adoptive families were well intentioned, literature on cross-cultural or trans-racial adoption in Canada has found that aboriginal trans-racial adoptions consistently failed. Recent studies have shown that such adoptions deteriorate rapidly in the teen years regardless of age of placement, and according to recent statistics, a stunning 85 to 95 percent of aboriginal trans-racial adoptions ultimately fail by the time the adoptee reaches adolescence. As a result, the majority of the aboriginal children adopted as a result of the Sixties Scoop now struggle with a number of identity issues as adults today.

Dr. Leo Steiner, a former director of the Aboriginal Community Crisis Team at the Toronto East General Hospital, said in an affidavit to the Family Court in 1990 in a case regarding cross-cultural adoption, “A child who is conflicted about his identity is severely handicapped. He may have developed a host of functional skills, but he is also subject to a gnawing, chronic self-questioning. The child becomes a victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy, self-sabotaging his own attempts at success, for he strongly believes he is doomed to failure. With low self-esteem and a confused sense of self, the child is ill equipped to form healthy and mature relationships with others. He is more likely to seek short-term pleasures rather than more productive realistic long-term goals. Unable to interact meaningfully in adulthood, he often develops a self centered, impulse-pleasing self-destructive lifestyle.”

In Ontario, the Native Child and Family Services of Toronto (NCFST) provides child welfare related services to an estimated 60,000 aboriginal people in the greater Toronto area. It provides a full range of prevention programs, as well as treatment and healing services. The NCFST is a licensed foster care provider, manages a large aboriginal child welfare caseload, and has an extensive for street youth. The centre is unique insofar as it is Ontario’s full service off‑reserve child welfare initiative under the direct control and management of the urban native community. Among youth on the street in Toronto, the typical profile is that of a young aboriginal male, often a runaway from an adoption home since about 14 years of age. A significant number of people served by the centre have experienced cross‑cultural adoptive breakdowns.