By Doug George-Kanentiio
On February 14 Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Belobaba made a historic ruling by holding Canada responsible for the pain and suffering endured by more than 16,000 native children taken from their communities and placed in foster homes across the province and into the U.S.
The federal government took an active role in ripping the children from their families resulting in psychological, spiritual and physical harm. The children were placed into non-native residences and stripped of their heritage. In many instances the placements were done without background checks and often to the highest bidder.
Despite its promise to work with native governments to assure the safety and security of the children virtually no follow-up was done once they disappeared into the foster care system. Many thousands of these children were lost to their people with the result that families were shattered and the children sent into a social void.
The consequences were predictable: abnormally high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide as the children grew older without the means to resolve the deep feelings of insecurity and low self esteem.
I know this as a survivor of the foster home system, as a former ‘ward’ of the federal government who had the absolute power to place me and my siblings in whatever place they deemed convenient, first in the notorious residential schools and then in a series of residences. By the time I was 17 years old I had been in 15 different foster “homes” some for as little as a weekend and others for a school year. Each “home” received a monthly allowance for our care. We never felt a sense of affection or acceptance but knew we were sources of income and little else.
In this for-profit arrangement keeping cost low was the rule so our diets, housing and clothing were kept at the very minimum. Hunger was at the edge of our daily lives and we learned shame because of the obvious poverty in our dress. Mistrust grew as a natural consequence as was rage and the need to strike out at anything resembling authority. We were not born bad but many of us were labelled as so because we fought back in whatever way we could.
In June of 1968 my brothers and I, along with most of the Akwesasne Mohawks (the “St. Regis Boys”) were expelled from the Mohawk Institute. We were pleased to have left that terrible place behind only to be met by social workers once we were on the bus taking us from the train station in Cornwall, Ont. to our home in Kanatakon-St. Regis. This interception took my brothers and I to a foster home, which began a very tough five years. The social welfare barriers prevented us from joining our brothers and sisters despite our pleas to do so.
We were not alone in our despair as many other Akwesasne children went through the same experiences.
A decade ago a courageous woman named Marcia Brown Martel contacted the Wilson-Christen law firm in Toronto to seek redress for her suffering as one of the 16,000. It took years but the firm worked its way through the legal system, providing clear evidence of demonstrable harm not only endured by herself but on behalf of every native child who went through the system.
Canada waged a counter action but its defences were weak and unconvincing. The federal government enacted the laws and policies, which the provinces used to take the children under the assumption that life in a non-Native home was preferable to an aboriginal one. It also was held liable for its methods to wipe out Native identity, and at times actual band membership, in its decades long practise of cultural assimilation.
No thought was given to what the child wanted or needed. Nor were the band councils prepared to challenge federal or provincial adoption and foster care policies. Some bands felt they had no choice but to take an active, if coercive, part in removing the children over the objections of their families and often at the threat of arrest.
Ms. Martel is from the Temagami community and, against the odds, found her way back home to assume a leadership role for her people.
So devastating was the February 14 ruling that Canada gave up its right to appeal and is now pressing for a quick resolution which will include financial compensation to the foster children now called the “Sixties Scoop”, a term used by Patrick Johnston in his 1983 report entitled “Native Children and the Child Welfare System”. It refers to the 1960’s when the act of removal was accelerated across the nation.
It is now up to us as to what we would deem appropriate. The amount sought by the lawyers is $1.3 billion, which Canada will apparently not contest.
But taking money is not enough. We have been through this before with the residential school settlements. We have also been in consultation with the Province of Ontario to seek its own reconciliation with the former students.
We have submitted to Ontario our ideas which range from a permanent archives to the construction of a healing center and the active recording of our troubled times for the benefit of those Mohawks yet unborn. We are seeking a trust fund to free the survivors so they can teach and take a creative part in the healing process.
For those who have yet to sign up as claimants they can call the Wilson-Christen law firm at 416-360-5952 or by calling Natalie Graham at 416-956-5625. The web site email@example.com has more information.
We all lost something important when we were taken from our homes. It cost us our childhood and Akwesasne lost the talents and potential of those whom we call “gifts from the Creator”.