Aboriginal communities call for a day of action to draw attention to 150 years of ‘racism, genocide and colonialism’.
Montreal, Canada – Nakuset knows just how different her life could have been.
A Cree woman from Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, a province in central Canada, she was taken from her mother as a young child and bounced between relatives and foster homes.
When she was three, she was adopted into a Jewish family in Montreal, nearly 2,500km away.
“Being pushed into a completely different culture, I got all kinds of cultural shame every day. I was not allowed to tell anyone I was Native – it was a bad thing,” Nakuset told Al Jazeera.
For decades, she was cut off from her biological family, including her older sister, Sonya, who had woken up one morning in their foster home to find that Nakuset had disappeared without a trace.
It took years for the sisters to be reunited.
“Sonya looked for me, every single day, for years,” said Nakuset, who now heads the Native Women’s Shelter in Montreal.
The ‘disastrous’ Sixties Scoop
Nakuset was one of thousands of indigenous children who were taken from their families and Native communities across Canada, and placed into non-indigenous adoptive homes or foster care.
The removals, which largely took place between the 1960s and 1980s, are known collectively as the Sixties Scoop.
On October 6, the federal government announced it had reached a $640m agreement, in principle, with Sixties Scoop survivors across Canada who lost their indigenous identity as a result of the long-standing practice.
Most of the indigenous children who were adopted or placed into foster care were never told about their indigenous roots. They lost contact with their families and communities and lost their language, culture and identity.
While not all of the adoptive families were abusive, many children endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse and have suffered lasting trauma.
Some went into homes across Canada, while others were removed to the US, UK, Australia and other countries.
Raven Sinclair, a professor of social work at the University of Regina and member of George Gordon First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, said child welfare officials literally scooped children up from First Nations reserves in some cases.
“The system really took one look and said, ‘Indigenous people can’t parent, so the best thing for us to do is take these children away, raise them as white people, and then everything will be great,'” Sinclair told Al Jazeera. “And really that just proved disastrous.”
A Sixties Scoop survivor herself, Sinclair was taken from her mother when she was four after a neighbour called social services.
She said she experienced physical and sexual abuse in her foster home.
She explained that while she didn’t suffer such abuse in her adoptive home, she was confronted with racism and bullying every day growing up.
A “cloak of silence” has shrouded the Sixties Scoop for a long time, Sinclair said, and the federal settlement is “symbolic of an acknowledgement that wrong was done”.
Compensation and healing
Under the settlement, First Nations and Inuit children who were taken from their homes between 1951 and 1991 will be eligible for personal compensation.
The amount will range from about $20,000 to $40,000 for each person. Depending on how many claims are filed, it could add up to a total of $600m.
Ottawa estimates that about 16,000 survivors will be entitled to a personal payout, but the government has not yet explained how survivors will apply for compensation or prove their claim.
Another $40m will go towards establishing a foundation to help survivors heal, and $60m will be allocated to help pay for legal fees.
Carolyn Bennett, the minister responsible for affairs between the state and indigenous peoples, said the settlement will “begin to right the wrongs” committed during the Sixties Scoop.
The deal comes after a federal court judge ruled in favour of Sixties Scoop survivors in their class-action lawsuit in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, last February.
The government failed to take steps to make sure indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families did not lose their Native culture, language and identity, the court found.
The federal agreement also puts an end to at least 18 class-action lawsuits that had been filed on behalf of Sixties Scoop survivors and were in various stages across Canada.
“They have lived their lives not being able to be proud indigenous people,” Bennett said about the effect the Sixties Scoop had on survivors.
“They have lived their lives not having secure, personal cultural identity. That was robbed. Someone thought that a non-indigenous family somewhere else in the world was going to do a better job.”
Yet, not all Sixties Scoop survivors are included in the recent deal.
The Metis fall outside the scope of the agreement, as do some non-status indigenous peoples (individuals whose indigenous status is not recognised by the government), provided that they are not eligible for status.
The Metis have mixed indigenous-European ancestry and they are officially recognised as aboriginal peoples under the Canadian constitution, alongside First Nations and Inuit peoples.
“It’s like we’re nobody,” Gary Tinker, a Metis survivor of the Sixties Scoop, recently told CBC in Canada.
“I’m glad for the First Nations, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But they never even mentioned our Metis citizens who were in foster care.”
Duane Morrisseau-Beck, cofounder of the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network and a Metis Sixties Scoop survivor, said he felt like Canada “is playing divide and conquer” with the agreement.
“This falls far from a national settlement and is playing out extremely negatively in the survivor community,” Morrisseau-Beck said in a statement.
Colleen Cardinal, cofounder of the National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network, said she had “very mixed feelings” about the settlement, in part since so many survivors are excluded.
“For thousands of people who are excluded it must be very re-traumatising, once again to be left out of something so huge … They have to work so much harder to get healing and acknowledgement, which they shouldn’t have to,” the 45-year-old told Al Jazeera.
‘We’ll be here waiting’
From Saddle Lake First Nation, just south of Edmonton, Alberta, Cardinal was a child when she was taken from her family and placed into an abusive, adoptive home in Ontario with her two sisters.
Estranged from her adoptive family, and in only limited contact with her birth family, Cardinal said meeting other Sixties Scoop survivors and sharing stories has been invaluable to her own healing.
That’s why any sort of healing programmes coming out of the federal settlement – which should include a focus on indigenous languages and culture – must be survivor-led, she said.
“We’re at a start and I’m hoping that as survivors we can help lead the state into being accountable [and] being transparent for what they did,” she said.
Cardinal said a formal apology from the government would also help survivors heal, but it needs to be accompanied by concrete action.
Sixties Scoop survivors, meanwhile, should know that they aren’t alone. “I want them to know … that they can come home,” Cardinal said. “We’ll be here waiting for them.”