This week, in a downtown Toronto courthouse, Indigenous people who were taken away from their families as children began what they hope will be the final leg of a journey for justice from the Canadian government.
They are the victims of the "Sixties Scoop," a period in which government workers took children from Aboriginal reserves and placed them into white homes across Canada, the US, and Europe — often under the pretense that doing so was in the children's best interest.
In Ontario, Canada's most populous province, an estimated 16,000 people were subjected to a practice designed, according to lawyers, "to remove the savage Indian from the child" — and now the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
Plaintiffs are seeking $85,000 in damages each. But beyond that, survivors want the government to acknowledge it breached its duty of care by failing to help them preserve their Indigenous culture.
"Our claim is about cultural genocide, and about the loss of identity for these 16,000 native children," said Jessica Braude, one of the lawyers in the case. "We're dealing with liability — that is liability with respect to Canada's obligation to protect First Nations people, their culture and identity."
The lawsuit names the federal government, which paid for welfare programs in Ontario that extended to indigenous reserves, as a defendant and covers a period between December 1965 and December 1984. Similar lawsuits have been inching their way through the court systems in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba.
The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that Canada failed to ensure children who were taken from their homes knew of their Indigenous status, provided them with no means of retaining their culture, and failed to help them reclaim their cultural identities when they left the system.
The federal government had been forcibly removing Indigenous children from their communities well before the 1960s in Canada. But it was in that decade that their overrepresentation in the welfare system skyrocketed, as compulsory government-sponsored religious institutions — known as residential schools — began to be phased out.
Spurred by concern for the poverty that permeated many Indigenous communities, combined with a paternalistic assessment that Indigenous children weren't being properly cared for, provinces stepped in to provide services including child protection. They dispatched social workers with little understanding of Indigenous culture and traditions, informed by a Euro-Canadian view of parenting that often clashed with what they saw on reserves. A traditional Indigenous diet of dried game, fish, and berries, for example, became cause for alarm.
"I was told [I was taken away] because my family, my parents, my people were alcoholics," said Marcia Brown Martel, now 53 and the lead plaintiff in the case. "That I couldn't be with any of my people because they were all like that."
The federal government has always defended its actions and fought to have the lawsuit quashed for years. Because the removals were done in accordance with court orders and the courts had acted in "the best interests of the children," the "so-called Sixties Scoop cannot now be questioned or challenged," reads a judge's summary of the government's position from 2014. The new Liberal government's position has been that these matters should be settled outside of court.
Raven Sinclair, a survivor of the Sixties Scoop and a professor at the University of Regina who has researched the period, said there isn't an official total of how many children were affected across the country, but conservative estimates peg it at 20,000. It could be much higher, however, because many adoption records were incorrect or falsified.
And the consequences, according to experts, have been profound.
Psychologist Dr. Ana Bodnar testified in 2009 that the loss of culture has resulted in low self esteem, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and difficulties in parenting.
The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which examined the impacts of residential schools, said the Sixties Scoop is also partly to blame for the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system that persists today.
By the 1970s, 1 in 3 indigenous children were separated from their families by adoption or fostering. In 1977, they accounted for 51 percent of the children in care in Saskatchewan, and 60 percent of the children in care in Manitoba. The latest statistics from each of those provinces show that 85 percent of children in foster care are Indigenous.
"The whole child welfare system operates on the backs of Indigenous children and families, and there's reasons for that beyond that Indigenous people can't raise children or an epidemic of neglect," Sinclair said. "The systemic issues that are going on — biases, prejudices, and outright racism — these factors have to be untangled in order for us to get at the truth and to get to reconciliation."
Vicky Desmolin and her sister Yvonne Recollet were two of 12 siblings to be taken away from their violent stepfather and from their Wikwemikong First Nation home on Manitoulin Island. Having lost touch with their brothers and sisters, who were placed elsewhere, the sisters, now 57 and 55, still have no idea where some of them are, and have found it hard to forge close bonds with the others.
While the pair moved separately through the foster care system, their experiences reflect the stories of other Sixties Scoop survivors.
"In one home, we weren't allowed to sit in the living room," Desmolin recalled. "[My foster parents' own children] were allowed to lay wherever they wanted, and we couldn't access the full house, and slept in the basement."
Recollet remembers being restricted to one part of the house unless she was washing the walls. She said was forced to go to church seven days a week, and twice on Sundays, and beaten when she spoke Ojibwe.
The sisters say they struggled with alcohol addiction. Rediscovering their culture wasn't easy.
"It was hard for me to feel that sense of 'I've come home now.' I had to work for the sense of belonging," Desmolin said.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk