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Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel (left) hugs the plaintiffs co-lawyer Jeffrey Wilson during a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday, February 14, 2017. The Chief who is a representative plaintiff in an Ontario class action, was taken from her home community north of North Bay in 1967 when she was four years old. She spent years in foster care, losing her first language and cultural identity, was adopted by a non-indigenous family. Earlier today a judge ruled in favour of 16,000 Ontario natives who were removed from their communities and placed in non-native homes in the Sixties Scoop. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris YoungChris Young/The Canadian Press

The catastrophe of the "Sixties Scoop" was in a way quite simple – though the resulting litigation is still grinding its way through the courts, more than fifty years later.

Back in the 1960s, the federal government, often neglectful of the aboriginal people for whom it was constitutionally responsible, did not have a system of native child welfare services. To address this defect, Ottawa decided to delegate the job to the provinces.

After a federal-provincial conference in 1963, it was decided that native child welfare systems would be set up, much like provincial child welfare programs covering Canadians – "to make available to the Indians the full range of provincial welfare programs."

On paper, it sounded like a reasonable idea.

René Tremblay, the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, was very clear that the natives had to be "fully consulted." Other admirable sentiments were expressed. It was up to the federal government to make that consultation actually happen. It didn't.

In the current lawsuit, covering the province of Ontario, Justice Edward Belobaba examined the available record and found no evidence at all that natives in the province were ever consulted.

Between 1965 and 1984, thousands of native children were removed from their families and communities, and placed in care with non-native foster parents or adoptive parents.

Children sometimes need to be protected from abusive situations and families. But when the state inserts itself into the family home, it must do so with the utmost care.

And in the cases of these thousands of aboriginal children, some taken from their families on flimsy pretexts, Justice Belobaba ruled that "great harm was done."

"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.'"

Many children ended up with well-meaning foster parents. But all the same, these people knew little of aboriginal culture, and nothing of how or why a toddler from a distant native community had ended up in their home. Even when these parents tried to do right, they could not undo the original wrong.

The wrong was the government's. Ottawa failed in its duty of care to these vulnerable, native children.

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