An Ontario court has ruled in favour of thousands of Indigenous people who were stripped of their cultural identities when they were taken from their homes on reserves by child protection workers and placed with white families.
Survivors of a period known as the Sixties Scoop are now waiting to hear how much the Ontario Superior Court orders the federal government to pay in damages following an eight-year legal battle.
“After so many years, I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my heart. Our voices were finally heard and listened to. Our pain was acknowledged,” lead plaintiff Marcia Brown Martel said in a media release.
The plaintiffs are seeking about $1.3 billion in damages, or $85,000 for each of the 16,000 people represented in the lawsuit.
“After so many years, I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my heart.”
The case revolves around a 1965 agreement between the federal and Ontario governments that extended its child welfare programs to reserves, but made clear that each band had to be consulted before this took place.
“Canada knew or should have known that the adoption of Aboriginal children by non-Aboriginal parents constituted ‘a serious intrusion into the Indian family relationship” that could ‘obliterate the [Indian] family and…destroy [Indian] status,’” wrote Belobaba.
“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.’” he wrote. “Great harm was done.”
Belobaba found the government never consulted the bands, a practice that “would probably have prevented the loss of the apprehended child’s aboriginal identity” and was well understood, even at the time.
He called the argument from Crown lawyers that there was no evidence bands would have provided advice to prevent this from happening “odd and, frankly insulting.”
The judge also rejected the Crown lawyers’ submission that the social science knowledge of the time didn’t allow the government to foresee the harm transracial adoption would cause.
“The loss of Aboriginal identity resulted in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, unemployment, violence and numerous suicides.”
“The uncontroverted evidence of the plaintiff’s experts is that the loss of their Aboriginal identity left the children fundamentally disoriented, with a reduced ability to lead healthy and fulfilling lives,” wrote Belobaba. “The loss of Aboriginal identity resulted in psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, unemployment, violence and numerous suicides.”
The decision comes a few days after the federal government requested a delay in the proceedings, saying it was prepared to negotiate a settlement with the plaintiffs On Friday, after the judge requested a written explanation of why the decision shouldn’t be read, Crown lawyers withdrew their request.
Marcia Brown Martel, who was 9 years old when she was removed from her home on the Temagami First Nation in 1972, said she hoped no one saw the ruling as a loss for the government.
“It is a gain for all of us—a step forward and a step closer to reconciliation,” she said.