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Canada to Pay Millions in Indigenous Lawsuit Over Forced Adoptions

For decades, Canadian social workers forcibly separated indigenous children from their families, putting them up for adoption by nonnative families in Canada and around the world.

On Friday, the Canadian government took a step to make amends for that adoption program, which began in the 1960s and lasted till the 1980s, by agreeing to pay 750 million Canadian dollars in legal settlements.

The settlement – affecting as many as 30,000 people – is part of a broader push across Canada in the last few years to grapple with its legacy of injustices against the country's indigenous populations.

It includes a similar settlement for indigenous children who were separated from their families and sent to residential schools far from their homes as well as measures like a promise by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address a long list of native concerns.

Most recently, Mr. Trudeau told the United Nations General Assembly that Canada had a responsibility to improve its relationship with its indigenous populations.

"I don't know what people were thinking," said Carolyn Bennett, the minister of crown-indigenous relations, who announced the settlement in Ottawa on Friday morning.

"I don't know why anybody," she continued, "why settlers or government thought they could do a better job than the village, than the chiefs' responsibility to make sure everybody in the community was well."

The adoption program began as a way to provide social services to indigenous children. But social workers without training in indigenous life or culture arrived in aboriginal communities that were unfamiliar to them, and removed children from some situations in which, the court found, they were not neglected or in danger. Some children ended up as far away as Europe and New Zealand.

Chief Marcia Brown Martel of the Beaverhouse First Nation near Kirkland Lake, Ontario, the lead plaintiff in a class action that was one of the cases settled on Friday, said she hoped the settlement would lead to further reforms of child welfare systems.

"I have great hope that because we've reached this plateau, this will never, ever happen in Canada again," Chief Brown Martel said at the announcement.

In 1967 or 1968, when she was just 4 or 5 years old, Ms. Brown Martel and her sister were placed in foster care by child welfare workers. She was repeatedly taken away from her reserve, perhaps 10 times, until 1972, when she was adopted by a non-indigeneous family in Southern Ontario.

Commonly known as the Sixties Scoop – because the children were "scooped" from their communities – the adoption program has generally received less attention than the residential school system. Both, though, stem from a historic effort by white colonial settlers to stamp out the indigenous identity, through children.

Under the school program, which began in the 19th century, indigenous children were placed in schools far from their homes with the intention of wiping out indigenous cultures and languages.

In 2008, the Conservative government in power apologized for the residential program as part of a settlement of a class action that also included paying 1.6 billion Canadian dollars to survivors of the system. The settlement created a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which produced a long list of recommendations, most of which Mr. Trudeau has promised to implement.

The adoption program first came under severe criticism in a Manitoba government report in 1985. Two years ago, Manitoba became the first province to apologize for its role in the program.

A class action in Ontario saying that the government failed to fulfill its obligations to indigenous people in the program dragged on for eight years before being decided in the plaintiffs' favor in February.

If approved by the court, the settlement announced on Friday will resolve that case and some others. The government is still negotiating with plaintiffs in other cases, which unlike the Ontario case also involve provinces and include accusations that the plaintiffs were abused by foster or adoptive families.

The government is also still working out the amounts for individual settlements and the wording of an official apology. The settlement announced Friday will include 50 million Canadian dollars for a foundation to educate adoptees about their native languages and cultures.

In an earlier ruling in the case, Justice Edward P. Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice called the adoption program "well intentioned but profoundly uninformed" and found that it had a profound effect on the children throughout their lives.

"There is also no dispute about the fact that great harm was done," he wrote in his February decision. "The 'scooped' children lost contact with their families. They lost their aboriginal language, culture and identity. Neither the children nor their foster or adoptive parents were given information about the children's aboriginal heritage or about the various educational and other benefits that they were entitled to receive. The removed children vanished 'with scarcely a trace.'"

The program was, in some ways, a successor to the residential school system, which was winding down during the 1960s.

While the federal government was responsible for the welfare of indigenous children – something that is a provincial obligation when it comes to all other children – it had no cohesive plan for delivering such services. So in 1965, it began giving provinces money to handle the job through their children's aid societies and other organizations.

Government officials, at least during the planning stages, made efforts to ensure that the new system did not erode indigenous culture and identities – unlike the practices in the earlier residential school program.

In the adoption program, the provinces were told they had to consult indigenous leaders about how the services should be administered and delivered. In Ontario, Justice Belobaba ruled, that never happened.

The result was a culture clash.

Evidence presented during a 2010 hearing in the Ontario case showed that "in aboriginal communities there is no concept of adoption or wardship because all children are regarded as a communal responsibility."

The nonnative families the children ended up with ranged widely from abusive to loving and caring. But rarely did they educate the children about their backgrounds.

The government kept a special registry of the children who were adopted, the court was told, but never contacted the children, leaving it up to their adoptive parents to tell them about payments and rights they were entitled to. It appears that few did.

While it was not the program's intention, Justice Belobaba wrote that it may have been a more potent method of assimilation than the residential school system.

"Residential schools incarcerated children for 10 months of the year, but at least the children stayed in an aboriginal peer group; they always knew their First Nation of origin and who their parents were, and they knew that eventually they would be going home," he wrote, adding that not only were adopted children completely isolated from their culture, "Even their birth names were erased, often forever."

The program ended in Ontario in 1984 when the province changed its laws to require that if aboriginal children had to be taken from their parents, they should remain in their communities whenever possible.

[Source: By Ian Austen, The New York Times, Ottawa, 06Oct17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 09Oct17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.