Last week, Manitoba became the first province to apologize for the Sixties Scoop, where, from the 1960s to 1980s, upwards of 20,000 of Canada's aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to white families for adoption in Canada or abroad.
Not every aboriginal child in the foster and adoption system during those years was a product of the Scoop of course, but the political and psychological dynamics of aboriginal-to-white-family adoptions loom large. This is even more so now, in light of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Naomi Lazarus remembers the day her seven-year-old foster sister, Cherie, was taken away. It was 1984, and Lazarus's family was hoping to make permanent the loving home they had provided for the bright and charming girl who had suffered through the devastation of separation from seven homes in the previous two years. "We were all madly in love with her," Ms. Lazarus recalls.
Cherie was the daughter of an aboriginal woman from an Ontario reserve who had made her way to Vancouver, and who would abandon Cherie during drinking binges. Cherie was crying and clinging to her foster parents' legs the day the authorities came to relocate her. Naomi left for school. When she returned, Cherie was gone.
Ms. Lazarus's family's social worker pushed for adoption, but in the face of the First Nations band's assurance that an aunt and uncle back on the reserve would adopt her, the family's hopes were dashed.
But then that adoption plan, too, fell through. They again pressed for adoption. The band promised that Cherie would be adopted by one of the band chiefs. The band representatives declared that any attempt to remove Cherie from the reserve would be met with armed resistance.
Ten years later, Ms. Lazarus met someone who knew Cherie, then 17. Cherie was enrolled at the University of Toronto. But she was still in foster care.
Ms. Lazarus recalls the bitterness and frustration of her family not being allowed to adopt Cherie. (Even though Ms. Lazarus's mother is Métis and her stepsister is Ojibwa, authorities deemed them, as Ms. Lazarus recalls, a white family.) But now, in the wake of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report, Ms. Lazarus has a somewhat different view.
"On a very visceral level," Ms. Lazarus told me, "I understand the concept that 'we will not let you take another child from us.' "
Today, public adoption services take cultural heritage seriously when attempting a match, though it's "not the only factor," explains Kenn Richard, executive director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.
"Bands like to plan for their children," Mr. Richard says. "Sometimes they don't have the capacity; there's lots of things that get in the way of the middle-class ideal. It is up to us to help the children find a place that loves them."
And with only 4 per cent of the Canadian population, aboriginal children account for nearly 50 per cent of those in foster care.
Still, Mr. Richard explains, "adoption is not a word I use much any more; instead I use 'permanency,' including long-term foster care, customary care (where the child is not relinquished to the state but is instead under the care of their First Nation), as well as adoption," Mr. Richard explains. The key, he says, is a placement that is "resonant and congruent with the family's background. The child maintains his or her citizenship with that band…and [retains] a sense of membership in [that] community."
As is now typical when finding permanent homes for aboriginal children, Native Child and Family Services asks prospective families to come up with a cultural plan to preserve the child's identity and heritage. Policies like these are echoed in the TRC's recommendations, which include "providing adequate resources to enable aboriginal communities and child-welfare organizations to keep aboriginal families together where it is safe to do so, and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments, regardless of where they reside."
Cultural planning is a more widespread practice today than it was when Krista Thomas, half Cree and half Saulteaux, was growing up. Now 41, Ms. Thomas was adopted as a toddler by a childless white couple in Winnipeg's attractive River Heights neighbourhood. Ms. Thomas's biological mother – whom she met when she turned 18 – had abused solvents, drank, and shoplifted. Two of Ms. Thomas'ss biological siblings died in infancy. Her biological father – whom she never met – died in the mid-1980s, "not in a good way."
"My [adoptive] parents did a really good job bringing me up," Ms. Thomas says. "They did their best to support me learning about my native ancestry; they encouraged me in any way possible to find out more about it." Colleagues of her father who were more knowledgeable about the culture than they were would "chat with her" about her heritage and help her find books. But her exposure was necessarily limited. There were no elders to talk to, no First Nations schooling to be had, no language exposure.
Now Ms. Thomas lives in the United Kingdom where she works in administration and is married to a white British man. With virtually no Canadian aboriginal people there, she now feels more white and Christian – she was raised in the United Church – than anything else. Still, when visiting her parents in Winnipeg, Ms. Thomas makes a point of visiting aboriginal festivals, and she's found an uncle who lives on a reserve with whom she has connected. She also maintains a connection with her biological mother and brother.
Does she feel she missed out on her heritage? "I think I did, but the stronger reaction is that I'm grateful for the family and opportunities I was given. I feel a bit disappointed and I feel I have a disconnect – maybe because intellectually I know that I am Canadian aboriginal… but I don't feel like I [am] part of a native community." If she were to attempt to become more directly part of that community, she says, "I don't know if they would swoop me up and take me in, or whether there would be a barrier."
As we were Skyping, I noticed that Ms. Thomas had a Canadian flag sticker affixed to the wall of her southeast London home. "I've always said I'm very happy to be Canadian; I'm always singing praises about multiculturalism." I ask her whether she thinks multiculturalism has worked for Canada's aboriginal population. She pauses. "Not really."
Reflecting back on her family's experience trying to adopt Cherie, Ms. Lazarus says that she would "love to find her," who turns 38 this August.
She adds, "I'm in awe of the fact that First Nations people can organize and be political and create art. It puts my jaw on the floor," Ms. Lazarus says, herself a professional costume designer. "Canada worked so hard for so long to break them and they're still fighting. That's awe-inspiring."