The “Scooping” of Indigenous Children, 1951–80s

Patrick Johnston, a researcher for the Canadian Council on Social Development, first used the term “Sixties Scoop” in his 1983 report on Indigenous children in the child welfare system, entitled Native Children and the Child Welfare System. In the report, Johnston describes the large-scale apprehension of Indigenous children in the 1960s from their homes, communities and families of birth — often without their parents’ or band’s consent — and their subsequent adoption into predominantly non-Indigenous families across the United States and Canada. The Sixties Scoop was not an isolated event propelled by inferior Indigenous parenting, but rather an extension of paternalistic policies in Canada that sought the assimilation of Indigenous cultures and communities.

The process began in 1951, when amendments to the Indian Act gave the provinces jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare (Section 88) where none existed federally. By the 1960s, after nearly a century living under draconian and devastating federal policies, such as the Indian Act and residential schools, many Indigenous communities — particularly those living on-reserve — were rampant with poverty, high death rates and socio-economic barriers (see Indigenous People: Economic Conditions and Social Conditions of Indigenous People). With no additional financial resources, provincial agencies in 1951 inherited a litany of issues surrounding children and child welfare in Indigenous communities. With many communities under-serviced, under-resourced and under the control of the Indian Act, provincial child welfare agencies chose to remove children from their homes rather than provide community resources and supports.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, provincial governments considered the removal of Indigenous children the fastest and easiest way of addressing Aboriginal child welfare issues. In many cases, the child welfare system did not expect or require its social workers to have specific knowledge about, or training in, Indigenous child welfare. They also did not have to seek the consent of communities to “scoop” newborn and young children from their parents and place them into non-Indigenous homes. It was only until the Child, Family and Community Services Act in 1980 that social workers were required to notify band councils of a child’s removal from the community.

Number of Affected Children

The process of the Sixties Scoop spread exponentially during the 1960s — a time when Indigenous children were particularly overrepresented in the child welfare system. For example, in 1964, the number of Indigenous children in provincial care in British Columbia (1,466) was over 50 times more than it had been in 1951 (29). Although Indigenous children only made up one per cent of children in protective services in the 1950s nation-wide, by the late 1960s, they made up just over one-third.

The number of children taken away from their birth families varied according to province, but the practice was most popular on the Prairies. In Saskatchewan, there were specific programs designed to facilitate these adoptions. In Manitoba, between 1971 and 1981, approximately 3,400 Indigenous children were adopted, with up to 80 per cent to non-Indigenous homes.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada indicates that the number of Indigenous children adopted between 1960 and 1990 was 11,132. However, more recent research suggests upwards of more than 20,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their homes. Many children were also sent abroad, some as far away as New Zealand. Depending on the source, in 1981 alone, 45 to 55 per cent of children were adopted by American families.

Shifts in Child Welfare Policy, 1980s–Present

During the 1980s, the impact of the Johnston report, calls by Indigenous bands to amend provincial adoption laws and other reports critical of the Sixties Scoop, including Justice Edwin Kimelman’s No Quiet Place (1985), led to changes in child welfare policies. Before children could be placed in non-Indigenous families, priority for their adoptions was first to be given to extended family and then to another Indigenous family.

More changes came in 1990, when the federal government created the First Nations Child and Family Services program (FNCFS). This gave local bandsthe power to administer child and family services according to provincial and territorial legislation. Since then, bands have increasingly taken control over their own child welfare services.

However, the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in child welfare systems remains an issue of concern. In their 2015 Report to Canada’s Premiers, the Aboriginal Children in Care Working Group highlighted the disproportionally high number of Indigenous children in protective care across the country. For example, in Alberta, 69 per cent of Indigenous children are in protective care, even though they only make up nine per cent of the child population in that province. Similarly, in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, 23 per cent of Indigenous children are in welfare programs, while they only make up three per cent and six percent, respectively, of the child populations in those provinces.

Socio-cultural Impacts

The long-lasting effects of the Sixties Scoop on adult adoptees are considerable, ranging from a loss of cultural identity to low self-esteem and feelings of shame, loneliness and confusion. Since birth records could not be opened unless both the child and parent consented, many adoptees learned about their true heritage late in life, causing frustration and emotional distress. While some adoptees were placed in homes with loving and supportive people, they could not provide culturally specific education and experiences essential to the creation of healthy, Indigenous identities. Some adoptees also reported sexual, physical and other abuse. These varied experiences and feelings led to long-term challenges with the health and livelihood of the adoptees. As a result, beginning in the 1990s, class action lawsuits against provincial governments have been pursued in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and are still before the courts.

Recent Directions

On 18 June 2015, the Province of Manitoba issued an apology for the Sixties Scoop and announced that this history will be included in school curricula. The apology coincided with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) “Calls to Action,” regarding Indian residential schools. The TRC cites the Sixties Scoop as an important part of Canada’s legislative “cultural genocide” against Indigenous peoples.

On 1 February 2017, the Canadian government announced that it was ready to negotiate a settlement to the $1.3 billion class-action lawsuit launched against it in 2009. On 14 February, Ontario Superior Court judge Edward Belobaba ruled in favour of Sixties Scoop victims, finding that the federal government did not take adequate steps to protect the cultural identity of on-reserve children taken away from their homes. This is the first victory for a Sixties Scoop lawsuit in Canada. On 6 October 2017, the federal government announced a settlement of $800 million with Sixties Scoop survivors.