The Alberta government is working with the ’60s Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta to hold “engagement” sessions with Indigenous adults who were placed as children in non-Indigenous homes.
It seems likely that after an apology is officially made, discussions will immediately turn to compensation.
The federal government established a precedent by apologizing and announcing monetary awards. Consequently, the Alberta government’s decision is not that surprising. Probably, other provinces will be under pressure to do the same.
But they should be careful.
In order to form effective policies, we need to explain the ’60s scoop.
In the 1960s, provincial social workers entered reserves to protect children who were considered neglected. Until that time, residential schools were used as second homes for those children.
Many reserves were ravaged by alcohol abuse. In too many homes, alcohol-abusing parents weren’t providing safe homes for their children. With the closing of residential schools, other arrangements had to be made. The federal government signed an agreement with the provinces to provide social workers to manage these children.
The philosophy at the time was to encourage adoption. Then, as now, there were very few Indigenous couples adopting children. The social workers found non-Indigenous couples, first in Canada and then in the United States, to adopt these children.
These adoptions failed at alarming rates. The accepted thinking today is that the cause of the breakdowns was a loss of culture, but the reality is more complicated. In many cases, the children suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which caused many of the adoption failures.
But what is less known is that the scoop never stopped. In fact, more Indigenous children are in care now than at the height of the ’60s scoop. Manitoba has more than 10,000 Indigenous children in care. Those children were scooped by social workers who believe that a failure to apprehend would put the children in jeopardy. Now, Indigenous child-care workers operate under the same sense of duty to the children as did the non-Indigenous social workers of yesterday.
If the federal and provincial governments hadn’t protected the children, they would have faced lawsuits for failure to honour their commitments to Indigenous children. There would be wrongful death lawsuits as well.
With hindsight, both levels of government made mistakes. But they had a fiduciary responsibility to these neglected children and they had to act.
Today, the adoption of Indigenous children by non-Indigenous people is deemed unacceptable. But still, very few Indigenous couples adopt. Adoption is no longer an option for Indigenous children.
It’s a sad fact that most survivors of today’s system don’t do well. Too many turn 18, leave foster homes and have a dismal future as adults. A life of dependence on the street, or in jail, is all too often the case. No one knows if these people who were apprehended as children are any better off than if they had simply been left in their abusive homes.
The Alberta and federal governments might have set a very expensive precedent. If they decide to pay large amounts to survivors of the ’60s scoop, they might be committing themselves to pay similar amounts to children scooped in every decade after the 1960s.
Other provinces should be following what Alberta does with care. It’s certain that many lawyers are watching, too.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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