When she was five years old, Raven Sinclair was removed from her home in Saskatchewan. The family who adopted her received a one-page sheet outlining her background. It implied that she came from a French-Métis background and that musical talent ran in the family. Neither of these things were true.
“My mother took this to heart and put me in every kind of lesson you could imagine,” recalls Dr. Sinclair, a social work professor at the University of Regina. “I didn’t excel at all,” she laughs.
The researcher, who started school in West Germany and grew up in Ontario with her adopted family, discovered in her late 20s that she was of Cree and Scottish ancestry. Now a member of Gordon First Nation of southern Saskatchewan, Dr. Sinclair is the head of a five-year research program that began in 2016 and is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The Pe-kī-wē-win project, which means “coming home” in the Cree language, focuses on what has become known as the Sixties Scoop, the mass systemic removal of Indigenous and Métis children by Canada’s welfare system.
The research, which examines the historical context and policies that resulted in more than 20,000 Indigenous and Métis children across Canada being apprehended from as early as the 1940s through to the 1990s, is aligned with University of Regina’s dedication to responding to the Truth and Reconciliation’s calls to action. Among the university’s key goals is advancing the understanding of Canada’s history with and continuance of colonialism, including the Indian Residential Schools and the Indian Act.
The Pe-kī-wē-win project is gathering stories of the children, now adults, who were taken from their homes and communities and fostered and adopted by mainly white middle-class Canadians. In addition to “scouring the archives” and compiling over 40,000 archival documents, researchers have been collecting the stories of survivors, adoptive parents, social workers and bureaucrats who were involved.
“The goal is to examine the Sixties Scoop from as many perspectives as possible so that everyone can have a better understanding of what happened and how it affected everyone involved,” she says.
The prevailing narrative for people coming into care included the myth that the children needed “rescuing from a terrible situation,” says Dr. Sinclair, who believes that “the more insight we can gather, the better we can understand the context of some of these narratives that aren’t necessarily true.”
Connecting with my father’s family, my home community – that has been pretty important in terms of my sense of well-being, wholeness and connection.— Dr. Allyson Stevenson assistant professor at the University of Regina
During the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the reality for Indigenous people included widespread poverty. They were excluded from participating in Canada’s economic system. They lacked power in the political and justice realms; and attitudes of prejudice and bias, discrimination and racism were widespread, says Dr. Sinclair. “In Canada at that time, there was [generally] a pretty strong predisposition to looking at Indigenous people as far inferior and pretty much incapable of raising our own children.”
Allyson Stevenson, an assistant professor at the University of Regina, is a co-investigator of the Sixties Scoop, largely focusing on a historic perspective and policy research. She points out the link between the Sixties Scoop and contemporary child-welfare legislation that continues to discriminate against Indigenous children and families.
According to the 2016 census, Indigenous children under the age of five make up 40 per cent of children in foster care while Indigenous people represent only seven per cent of the population. At the same time, government funding of Indigenous agencies and services, compared to provincial and federal programs, is inequitable and insufficient.
Through her work and as a Métis adoptee, Dr. Stevenson understands the negative outcomes that are triggered by child removal, especially when children are adopted and fostered away from their culture, families and communities.
Dr. Stevenson, who was adopted and grew up in Regina, never had a chance to meet her father, who is Métis. “Connecting with my father’s family, my home community – that has been pretty important in terms of my sense of well-being, wholeness and connection,” she says.
Dr. Stevenson is optimistic about the introduction of Bill C-92. Set to take effect in early 2020, it affirms Indigenous rights and jurisdiction of child and family services. At the same time, the lack of mechanisms for funding for the transition to Indigenous and Métis control is disconcerting, she says. “The funding is still really, really critical.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.