From the 1960s until the 1980s, thousands of indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families by Canada's child welfare services. Last week they filed a class action suit seeking damages against the federal government.
TORONTO, Canada – Duane Morrisseau-Beck was just a newborn when he was scooped up from a hospital in Manitoba, in central Canada, in 1968.
He found out he was adopted at age six, but it would be decades later that Morrisseau-Beck discovered what had really happened – and that he was part of something much larger.
"I never really understood what was going on until probably into my 30s, when I first heard about the Sixties Scoop," he told TRT World, "That's when I really finally realised, ‘Oh my God, something happened to me.'"
Morrisseau-Beck, who was from a Metis family in Manitoba, was one of thousands of indigenous children that were forcibly taken from their families by child welfare authorities across Canada between the 1960s and 1980s.
The period is known collectively as the "Sixties Scoop."
Most of the these children were placed into non-indigenous adoptive or foster homes elsewhere in Canada, the United States, and even further abroad. Some even ended up in New Zealand.
The children not only lost contact with their immediate families, extended relatives, and the wider community, but many also lost their indigenous language, culture, and identity. In many cases, the adoptive or foster parents were given no information about the children's indigenous roots or their birth family histories.
Morrisseau-Beck, who was adopted into a Ukrainian family, said he struggled with his own identity for many years.
"I was dealing with loss of my identity, and trying to figure out what that was, and that included dealing with being a gay child. All that sort of all wrapped up [together] really [and] caused a lot of problems," he said.
Court rules in favour of survivors
On February 14, the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 16,000 indigenous children who were removed from their homes on reserves in Ontario between 1965 and 1984.
Canada had a responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure that indigenous children who were placed in non-indigenous foster or adoptive homes did not lose their native identity, the court found.
"Canada breached this common law duty of care," Justice Edward Belobaba wrote.
The government also should have known that putting these children into non-indigenous homes would have an impact on traditional First Nations family structures, the judge found.
"The uncontroverted evidence of the plaintiff's experts is that the loss of their Aboriginal identity left the children fundamentally disoriented, with a reduced ability to lead healthy and fulfilling lives," the ruling stated. "The loss of Aboriginal identity resulted in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, unemployment, violence and numerous suicides."
A final settlement in the $1.3 billion lawsuit, which was first filed almost a decade ago, has not yet been determined.
Following that victory, a new class action suit was filed in Federal Court in Toronto last week on behalf of all the Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and placed into non-Indigenous homes. The case, which is seeking $600 million in total damages, alleges that the federal government failed to prevent the children's loss of identity.
Connecting with other survivors
While Morrisseau-Beck has reconnected with his birth family in Manitoba, he stressed that an important step in healing for Sixties Scoop survivors is to connect with other adoptees.
He co-founded the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network, a national organisation and support network for First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples affected by Canada's child welfare removal policies.
"I think of it in the context of a veteran; we've been at war for quite some time internally with ourselves, and trying to figure out who we are, trying to win whatever battle that we're fighting," he said.
Speaking to reporters after the Ontario court's decision, Carolyn Bennett, Canada's minister of indigenous and northern affairs, described the Sixties Scoop as "a dark and painful chapter in Canada's history."
Bennett said the government does not plan to appeal the decision, and repeated that Ottawa is committed to getting to the table to negotiate other lawsuits.
"What we hear from a lot of the claimants is that it's not just about money. Money is important, but getting their language and culture back, making sure their children will be able to speak the language and be immersed in their culture, that is hugely important," Bennett said.
"A psychological atomic bomb"
The Sixties Scoop was "a psychological atomic bomb" for indigenous families across Canada, according to Raven Sinclair, a professor of social work at the University of Regina, and a member of the Gordon First Nation of southern Saskatchewan.
"It was almost like a complete displacement and dislocation from our indigeneity," she said.
And the policy is part of a long history in Canada of removing indigenous children from their families and communities. Another widespread method to achieve this was the use of "residential schools," Sinclair explained.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the Canadian government systematically removed indigenous children from their homes and placed them into day- or full-time boarding schools, many of which were run by churches, known as residential schools.
The goal of these schools was to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the dominant, white culture in Canada. Children were punished for speaking their own languages, and mistreatment and psychological and sexual abuse were rampant. Many children were abused, starved, and even died while at the schools.
"The purpose of the residential schools was to assimilate indigenous people and in many respects, the child welfare system was just an extension of that," Sinclair told TRT World.
"The vast majority [of adoptees] were not adopted into indigenous families, they were not adopted with siblings, so we completely lost all touch with family, community, culture, language."
The system was similar to what led to the Stolen Generations in Australia. Between 1910-1970, Australian police and child welfare officers systematically removed about 100,000 Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them into care.
The removals were part of a larger policy of assimilation, which put white, settler culture above the social, cultural and historic norms of indigenous communities.
Sinclair and several of her siblings were removed from their own family in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in the Canadian prairies. At age five, she was adopted into a family that lived on the outskirts of the city.
"There I was, a brown kid growing up in a white context, where I experienced all sorts of discrimination and racism," she said.
Over-representation in child welfare
Sinclair explained that, although the period denoted by the Sixties Scoop has ended, the systematic removal of indigenous children from their homes continues today in Canada.
While Aboriginal children below age 14 accounted for only seven percent of all children in Canada in 2011, they represented 48 percent of all foster children, according to Statistics Canada.
Overall, more than 14,000 Aboriginal children were in foster care in Canada in 2011, and less than half (44 percent) lived with at least one guardian who identified as Aboriginal.
"The overrepresentation of Aboriginal children persists despite legislative and structural changes intended to reduce the number of Aboriginal children in care," wrote McGill University researchers Vandna Sinha and Anna Kozlowski in 2013.
Canada's welfare system is not centralised. More than 300 provincial and territorial agencies operate across the country, and more than 100 agencies provide welfare services to indigenous children specifically, according to government statistics.
A recent study also shows that indigenous children are 130 percent more likely to be investigated as potential victims of abuse or neglect and 168 percent more likely to be placed into foster care than white children in Ontario.
But even when they are not removed from their homes and communities, indigenous children in Canada receive far less government support and services than others.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled last year that Ottawa systematically discriminates against indigenous children by failing to provide the same level of services on reserves that children receive elsewhere in Canada.
The decision came after the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, led by Cindy Blackstock, and the Assembly of First Nations, an umbrella group representing First Nations in Canada, sued the government.
But though the tribunal ordered the government to end its discriminatory practices, and immediately increase funding for First Nations children, it has yet to implement the ruling. The tribunal has issued two non-compliance orders against Ottawa.
"I can't tell you how tired I am of seeing the government apologise to successive generations of First Nations children for problems they could have prevented," Blackstock said on February 23, the 10 year anniversary of the date the complaint was filed.
"The time for saying I'm sorry, and the time for sending condolences, has got to be over," Blackstock said at a news conference.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to launch a renewed, "nation-to-nation" relationship with indigenous peoples in Canada that respects the community's historic rights.
On February 22, Ottawa announced a federal review of the laws, policies and procedures related to indigenous peoples in Canada, as part of the government's commitment to that renewed relationship.
A working group composed of several ministers will lead the review and examine what policy changes can be made for Ottawa to meet its "constitutional obligations and international commitments to indigenous Peoples," Trudeau said in a statement.
But indigenous groups across Canada have complained about a lack of concrete action since Trudeau's centrist Liberal government was elected in late 2015.
Meanwhile, class action lawsuits are underway in other provinces across Canada on behalf of survivors of the Sixties Scoop, including in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
For Morrisseau-Beck, it is important that Sixties Scoop survivors will be at the table going forward, and they must be able to get the resources they need to move towards reconciliation and healing.
But the most important thing is for survivors to connect to other adoptees. "We say to each and every one that's out there, you are not alone," he said. "You are not alone."