TORONTO—“This is not a show, this is a lifestyle for us,” said Beaver House First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, as she introduced a women’s drum group following a smudge that opened a Sixties Scoop Steering Committee press conference held at the Centre for Native Child and Family Well-Being in Toronto following the landmark decision that found the federal government. The honour song sung by the drum group for the survivors of the Sixties Scoop provided a fitting backdrop.
Chief Brown Martel was the lead plaintiff in the Ontario action. She was adopted by a non-indigenous couple in 1972 at age nine and later, when she began to seek out her roots, she discovered the Canadian government had declared her original identity dead.
“I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my heart,” Chief Brown Martel said. “Our voices were finally heard and listened to. Our pain was acknowledged. I hope no one sees this as a loss for our government. It is a gain for all of us—a step forward and a step closer to reconciliation.”
“I want to lift up Chief Marcia Brown, the representative plaintiff in the lawsuit who led this charge with passion and determination on behalf of the thousands of survivors across the country,” said Ontario Grand Chief Isadore Day. “This dark and painful chapter in Canadian history needs to be resolved in order to advance healing and reconciliation,” he continued. “This decision will now set a precedent for others across the country seeking solace and justice. We know that much more healing needs to take place not only for the survivors, but for their children and grandchildren.”
“Truth and justice prevails,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Pat Madahbee, himself a Sixties Scoop survivor whose story has appeared in The Expositor, “when something is wrong, it is wrong. The feds have to quit fighting the very people that they are mandated to help, as with residential school survivors, so many kids were impacted by the scoop, all First Nations have been impacted.”
“I’m glad on Valentine’s Day we got some love,” said Wikwemikong Sixties Scoop survivor, actor and singer Gloria Mae Eshkibok when contacted in her British Columbia home following the decision. “Canada made me smile, I might go to the birthday party.” Ms. Eshkibok’s story was featured in an earlier edition of The Expositor.
“This is great,” said Sixties Scoop survivor and Native rights activist and social worker John Fox, whose story was also featured in The Expositor. Mr. Fox, who lives in Peterborough, arrived at the press conference slightly winded, having rushed over from a concurrent press conference on the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Mr. Fox’s daughter died under disputed circumstances in Toronto.
“I was a lost child,” said Mr. Fox of his experience in the provincial child welfare system in the 70s, a system that abandoned him on the streets of Toronto at age 15. “I still don’t know how I made it.” Despite falling into severe alcohol abuse as a teenager and young adult, Mr. Fox is celebrating his 30th year of sobriety and has dedicated his life to helping repair the damage done to indigenous peoples.
“I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my heart,” Chief Brown Martel said.
The class action suit decision, which only directly impacts those taken from their homes in Ontario, sought $1.3 billion for the 1,600 children taken from their homes and placed in non-indigenous families where they were stripped of their language and culture, often facing violence and abuse far from their home communities and family.
Mr. Fox has supported the Sixties Scoop campaign since its inception, helping to organize some of the first rallies and protests targeting the issue.
The class action decision did not simply go against the federal government (which announced within hours of the decision that they would not appeal), it was a damning indictment of the treatment of Native children who the government were obligated to protect.
The federal government lawyers maintained that the government did not have a duty to preserve the cultural identity of the Sixties Scoop children. Government lawyers withdrew a request the judge delay his decision while the government negotiated a national resolution to the case following a heavy backlash.
“Canada’s submission misses the point,” said Ontario Superior Court Justice the Hon. Edward P. Belobaba in his decision. “The issue is not what was known in the 1960s about the harm of trans-racial adoption or the risk of abuse in the foster home. “Instead,” the justice said, “there can be no doubt that what was well-known even then was the importance to First Nations peoples of protecting and preserving their distinctive cultures and traditions, including their concept of the extended family.”
In the end he found that Canada had indeed breached its “duty of care” for the children, a duty clearly expressed in a 1965 memorandum.
Ms. Eshkibok has plenty of plans for any money that might flow to her from this court case, although she remains sceptical that it will be anything like the touted $85,000 for each of the survivors in the suit that is used to calculate the estimated $1.3 billion.
“That will probably be chiseled down for future programs for future programs for the children,” she said. If some significant money does flow to her, Ms. Eshkibok had a quick thought, “I would probably fix up my dad’s place,” she said. “I am not going to hold my breath.”
“If this government is truly committed to reconciling its horrible historic treatment of indigenous peoples, then the upcoming federal budget must contain sufficient funding and resources to address a multitude of urgent needs,” noted Chief Day. “We need to address the ongoing suicide crisis with mental wellness programming. We need to break the cycle of poverty and despair with the necessary infrastructure for good homes and clean water. First Nation lives are not lines in a budget or dollar amounts in a lawsuit. All we need are the necessary resources to create happy and healthy communities in order to finally secure our rightful place in Canada.”
Approximately 16,000 indigenous children in Ontario suffered a devastating loss of identity when they were placed in non-indigenous homes in either foster care, as crown wards or adoption from 1965 to 1984 by provincial child welfare authorities under terms of a federal-provincial agreement.
This class action suit is limited to Ontario, and the 1965 agreement upon which it is based will limit its precedence in relation to other suits shaping up across the nation, but the victory here in Ontario will doubtless lend heart to those in other communities with similar experiences. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 individuals in British Columbia may be taking part in that province’s suit.
For its part, the Canadian government, through statements made by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, has committed to negotiating settlements across the rest of the nation in good faith.
There may still be a great deal of negotiation and legal wrangling ahead, but for now Chief Brown Martel summed up the feelings of the steering committee when she said “this is a great day for Canada.”