A Canadian provincial government has apologized for the forced removal of thousands of indigenous children from their parents over two decades, a practice judges and advocacy groups have long called "cultural genocide."
From the early 1960s to the 1980s, social workers took children from First Nations, Inuit and Métis families, without their consent, and placed them in foster care or adoptive homes. The practice became known as the "Sixties Scoop." By the 1970s, approximately one third of indigenous children were in care across Canada, with 70 percent of them transferred to white families who seldom understood their culture or background.
Thursday afternoon, after drum ceremonies and testimony from victims, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger stood up in the provincial legislative chamber and said: "Today as Premier I would like to apologize on behalf of the province of Manitoba for the Sixties Scoop."
Selinger acknowledged that the removals constituted "a practice of forced assimilation" that "must now be recognized for the harm it caused and continues to cause."
Many now view the practice as a continuation of Canada's longstanding campaign to assimilate indigenous children into the white majority, stripping them of their language, culture and identities. The scoop took off as the government began to wind down Canada's residential school system, which placed indigenous children in church-run institutions that actively suppressed their traditions. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized for the schools, which became notorious for physical and sexual abuse, but neither the federal government, nor any other Canadian province has apologized for the scoop that followed.
Earlier this month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard testimony from hundreds of residential school survivors, called the schools a form of "cultural genocide." More than 20 years ago, a committee made the same comment about the Sixties Scoop, with Justice Edwin Kimmelman stating "unequivocally" that "cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic, routine manner."
The United Nations Convention on Genocide states that "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group?" constitutes genocide when the intent is to destroy a culture."
"An abysmal lack of sensitivity to children and families was revealed," Kimmelman wrote in the 1985 report. "Families approached agencies for help and found that what was described as being in the child?''s ?"best interest?" resulted in their families being torn asunder and siblings separated."
Unlike residential schools, which aimed to "kill the Indian in the child," the Sixties Scoop seems to have been the result of social workers acting in good faith, but failing due to ignorance of indigenous culture. Academic work on the removals mentions cases where children's aid removed children from families because they did not have refrigerators, even though it was not commonplace at the time in indigenous homes.
Two decades after the fact, Selinger addressed Kimmelman's charges, admitting that the practice was a form of cultural genocide. "It is important that we acknowledge the reality of that description," he said.
Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital, said Thursday marked "a step in the right direction."
"The people who were scooped, who were taken from their families, I think they will be pleased overall to hear the apology," he told VICE News.
But Johnston emphasized that action must follow the government's admission of guilt, and he called on the government to come through with more support for people suffering from the psychological consequences of being cut off from their identity.
"It was a serious offence against our people, and I think it's deserving of some compensation," he said. "It's core to any human being to know who your parents are, what your ethnic origin is, who you're connected to."
Selinger said he was "committed" to starting "on the path to reconciliation." He noted that his government had introduced legislation to open up sealed birth records and help reunite families, something survivors of the scoop have long been calling for. But he did not directly address the issue of compensation.
Like many First Nations leaders, Johnston says assimilationist policies are part of the explanation for the wide economic gap that separates First Nations and Métis people from other Canadians. At 50 percent, Manitoba has the lowest employment rate for indigenous people in the entire country. Median income for indigenous people in the province is $17,690, compared to over $30,000 for non-Aboriginals. Johnston said that conditions on Manitoba's First Nations reserves are "some of the worst in the country," with little access to potable water and widespread overcrowding.
"Indigenous people are far too often portrayed as being there with their hand out," he told VICE News. "But it has to be understood that that was meant to be. We were subject to genocide, we were subject to the Indian Act. So in that kind of a situation, who could be healthy? We were never given a chance."
After Selinger's speech, Ian Wishart of the opposition Progressive Conservative Party said that he was "concerned that an apology will not be enough." He said that, even today, a highly disproportionate number of the children taken into care are from First Nations. A Globe and Mail article from this March found that approximately 90 percent of the 10,000 Manitoban children in care are indigenous, though Johnston told VICE News that progress has been made in keeping those children in the community.
But another First Nations leader, Grand Chief Terrance Nelson of the Southern Chiefs' Organization, wrote in an email that "with the legislation and policies that continue to usurp children from their families to this day, this 60's Scoop Apology is nothing more than a platitude." He told VICE News that the continued "seizing" of Aboriginal children by Manitoba's Child and Family Services is "an industry corrupt with exploitation" and he urged the government to cancel the practice and redirect its financing to Aboriginal communities.
Coleen Rajotte, who was adopted into a white family during the scoop, stood in the halls of the legislature and spoke about how she tried to find her birth family for years. She spoke about the emotion she felt as she read letters her mother had written to try to get her back.
"As a kid, I had no idea who I was," she said, "and what nation I belonged to."
Rajotte, who now works as a filmmaker, told the stories of survivors she interviewed who were beaten or raped by the families they were sent to.
She called Selinger's apology "historic" and "a new beginning."
Selinger said the province wants to see "all levels of government act on their responsibility," and that he would be bringing the issue to the national level.
VICE News contacted provincial governments in Ontario and British Columbia, as well as the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs, to ask if they would be issuing a similar apology. A federal government representative said that they are "committed to the health, the safety and well-being of First Nations children. Child welfare services are delivered according to provincial laws and standards." They did not say if an apology would be forthcoming.
Follow Arthur White on Twitter: @jjjarthur