Over the past decade, a number of high-profile legal settlements have been reached between Canada’s federal and provincial governments and Indigenous peoples. The settlements have addressed various issues, including Indigenous land claims, resource allocation, as well as reparations for survivors of Canada’s notorious residential school system.
The Canadian residential school system was an extensive network of boarding schools for Indigenous children. The schools were funded by the federal government and administered by Christian churches (mainly Catholic). The system existed for more than a century (1870s-1990s) and directly impacted an estimated 150,000 people. The national death rate for Indigenous children forced into residential schools was roughly one-in-twenty-five.
According to a 2015 report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (itself the product of the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history), the residential school system was a “central component to a government-led policy of cultural genocide,” and was designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society.
Major legal battles waged by Indigenous groups, alongside efforts by grassroots movements such as Idle No More, have generated public awareness about these and other issues facing Indigenous people, which have been buried for over a century by systematic racism. They have also raised awareness within Indigenous communities themselves. Today, studies suggest that more non-Indigenous Canadians recognize the impact of the residential school system and Canadian settler-colonialism than in previous years. Still, there is much work to be done, as the extent of Canada’s genocide against Indigenous communities has yet to be thoroughly explored and addressed.
Extensive news coverage on another recent legal settlement between the federal government and Indigenous plaintiffs can hopefully help provide this critical momentum. On October 6, after an eight-year court battle, an $800 million agreement was reached to compensate victims of the “Sixties Scoop.”
The “Sixties Scoop” was the mass abduction (“scooping up”) of more than 20,000 First Nations and Métis children from their homes by child welfare authorities beginning in the 1950s. The children, who were taken without their parents or community leaders’ consent, were in most cases fostered or adopted by non-Indigenous families in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
The policy was called the “Sixties scoop” because it accelerated in the 1960s, around the time the Canadian government was phasing out the residential school system. Instead of ending Canada’s genocidal policies toward Indigenous people, the closing of residential schools shifted responsibility for these policies to the country’s family welfare and protective services departments. Indeed, according to a seminal study by researcher and former program director at the Canadian Council on Social Development, Patrick Johnson, Indigenous persons made up 1% of children in protective services nation-wide in the 1950s. By the 1970s, they represented 20%, despite the fact that they made up less than 5% of the total child population. Over time, Indigenous children became 4.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in the custody of welfare authorities. The policy was only discontinued in the 1980s, when grassroots pressure forced amendments to Canadian adoption and child welfare laws.
At the time, social workers claimed their actions were necessitated by the unsanitary conditions, addiction, malnutrition, and inadequate housing in Indigenous communities. But, the reason these circumstances existed was because of decades of government neglect and abuse. Social workers also assumed that Indigenous cultures were inferior and even harmful to children. In fact, many officials created fake death certificates for abducted children, to ensure there would be no record of their past.
In effect, then, Indigenous communities were victims of a human trafficking campaign, which was as an extension of Canada’s “cultural genocide” policies.
While the recent court settlement is a step in the right direction, the $800 million payout is also receiving some valid criticism. It excludes Métis due to a lack of official records identifying them in custody during the relevant period of time. Non-Status First Nations (those who lack federal status recognition) are also excluded, unless they are eligible for status under current guidelines. There is also concern that the money will not be adequate, since it must be split amongst 16,000-20,000 claimants. The settlement falls short on other grounds, such as failing to tackle the fact that Indigenous children remain overrepresented in Canada’s foster system.
Nevertheless, the case does help uncover yet another hidden aspect of Canada’s genocidal campaign against Indigenous peoples, and is necessary to the success of the ongoing battle for true healing and decolonization in the country.