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Adoption as a tool of cultural genocide, the “child grabs” Canadian First Nations peoples have endured

To start from a personal perspective, I’m just a Bastard, a politically active adoptee.

Being legally prohibited from attaining my State sealed records, I have no idea what heritage cultural or genetic my biological family might contain, other than a quick glance in a mirror appears to indicate pretty clearly a hefty chunk of what would generally be termed “white” by sociological definition. The family history of those who adopted me has interwoven at times with First Nations peoples on both the American and Canadian sides of the border.

While my interest in this subject, yes at times does relate to aspects of ‘familial’ history, my primary interest in such is historical and political, speaking from both a Bastard perspective, as one who opposes forms and tactics of colonialism (religious, political, etc), and as one who supports indigenous peoples’ autonomy and demands for redress.


I’m going to use this Aug 2nd, ’08 CTV piece, At least 22,000 Canadian children need parents, as a jumping off point to provide some background readings links towards understanding some of the history reguarding the Canadian pool of children currently available for adoption. The CTV piece is pretty much par for the course adoption marketing, but it does provide a few useful statistics:

“There are 76,000 children in child welfare care and over 22,000 we know are actively waiting for adoption right now,” Sandra Scarth, president of the Adoption Council of Canada, told CTV News.

In 2006, Canadians adopted 1,535 children from other countries, according to the most recent Citizenship and Immigration Canada report on international adoption statistics.

China was the top choice for Canadian families, followed by Haiti.

Of the kids labeled available many are First Nations:

In Canada, many on the adoption waiting lists are First Nations children, some of whom are victims of poverty and their parents’ substance abuse.

“We actually have three times the number of First Nations children in child welfare care today than we did at the height of the residential schools,” said Cindy Blackstone of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

So what percentage of kids in Canadian child welfare are Aboriginal? An April 2004 study, entitled Keeping the Promise: the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Lived Experiences of First Nations Children and Youth (link to a PDF) produced by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada estimated the number at 30-40%. This is gross over representation of Aboriginal children in ‘care’ considering Native children represent only 5% of the Canadian child population.

What about the “residential schools” referred to in the above, and why would that be used as a frame of reference?

Many Americans are unaware of the systematic cultural genocide the “Indian Residential Schools” inflicted upon First Nations people in Canada, despite America’s very similar own history with the “Indian Boarding Schools”.

The religious schools in Canada, (which were later government funded) were a core program used in the attempted systematic dismantling of First Nations identity, familial bonds, culture, and heritage. While such were labeled “schools” they utilized systems of punishments and brute force against those who refused to assimilate, (see Schooling as genocide. Residential schools for First Nations in Canada 1900-1980) a summary of a paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 Sept. 2003:)

Preliminary results suggest that there were substantial differences between the national policies of the three countries towards the aboriginal population. Also schooling and pedagogy took different shapes. In Canada, violence, abuse and oppression formed the educational practice under the guidance of the religious bodies. Children were collected by force from their parents and suffered in the residential schools. The Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia is a prominent example of the intruder’s policy for subordination of the population. Overall, the research indicates that schooling can play a major role in suppression and even genocide. Still today, former students must get medical help to recover from the damages caused by colonial school policy.


Different measures were used to discipline the pupils. The strap, humiliation, spanking with hands, head shaving and a diet of bread and water, filling the mouth with soap or motor oil, and not at least, not letting the children be in contact with their families (Haig-Brown, 1998, pp 82). All the sexual assaults that have been reported damaged many of the children for the rest of their lives.

By way of most basic background, look to pages such as this, Residential Schools: The Background:

One of the most acrimonious issues to result from the Treaty process is the dark legacy of the residential school system. The purpose of the residential schools in Canada was to educate and civilize or westernize the First Nation peoples in order that they adopt a more western – that is European – lifestyle. Separating the children from their parents and forcing religion on them, it was believed, was the only means by which to achieve this “civilizing” of the First Nations peoples.

Or even the wikipedia page if only to get an overview of important milestones and dates, Canadian residential school system. The CBC has also prepared a timeline, A timeline of residential schools. The CBC also has a video archive, A Lost Heritage: Canada’s Residential Schools with footage from the ‘schools’.

As but one of many firsthand accounts, see quotations from We were not the savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision Between European and Native American Civilizations, First Nation History.

All of which has led to Canada’s attempts at ‘restitution’ (as if such could ever be ‘made right’.) Articles such as Canada makes first residential school payment , (from Oct 5th, ’07, also see the links at the bottom of the article ) about the residential school settlement make a jumping off point.

This past June, Stephen Harper (The Canadian Prime Minister) delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons. (See PM cites ‘sad chapter’ in apology for residential schools):

Wednesday marked the first time a Canadian prime minister has formally apologized for the physical and sexual abuse that occurred in the now-defunct network of federally financed, church-run residential schools.

Fist Nations peoples reactions have been mixed. As but one example, I will again point readers at Daniel N. Paul’s, (author of “We were not the Savages”) reaction at the bottom of this page


Let’s say I’m somewhat encouraged, not overwhelmed, by Mr. Harper’s apology- it touches the tip of the iceberg. I will congratulate him on this, he has gone further than any Prime Minister has gone to-date in acknowledging Canada’s inglorious past mistreatment of First Nation Peoples, but, he didn’t go overboard.

Today, I would encourage National Chief Phil Fontaine, and others, to keep in mind that our First Nations are owed an apology for a long list of horrors perpetuated against our Peoples by Canadian and British colonial governments. A few examples, the extermination of the Beothuk, the use of scalp proclamations to try to exterminate the Mi’kmaq, medical experimentation, Indian Act sections that barred us from pool rooms, from hiring lawyers to fight our claims, centralization in the Maritimes, economic exclusion, etc., etc., the list is extensive.

When the day comes that a Canadian Prime Minister gets up in the House of Commons and make a full unequivocal apology for all the wrongs we and our ancestors suffered, it will be the day that we can fully celebrate.

Daniel N. Paul, June 12, 2008

So, in light of such history how does this relate to the pool of children made available to adoption in modern Canada? The residential schools may be closed, but as the CTV adoption puff piece laid out, legally severing Native rights to their own children has been a far more effective and perhaps socially acceptable means of destabilizing First Nations communities:

“We actually have three times the number of First Nations children in child welfare care today than we did at the height of the residential schools,” said Cindy Blackstone of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

Here Daniel N. Paul deconstructs an article by Michael Downey entitled “Canada’s genocide”. The ‘child grab’ was intertwined with the ‘schools’ as part of an overarching strategy to dismantle Native cultures:

Downey relates in his piece the heart-wrenching tale of how thousands of First Nations children were “legally” seized from their parents by provincial governments during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and placed with white adoptive parents in homes around the world. Placement agencies in the United States often received fees from the adoptive parents in the range of 15 to 20 thousand dollars per child.

The stage for the playing out of this tragedy was set in the 1950s when the federal government shirked part of its constitutional mandate for insuring the protection and welfare of Registered Indians and delegated to the provinces, via federal-provincial agreements, its responsibility for the care and control of minor Native children. Downey relates how quickly the process mushroomed into another fast-track process to rob First Nations of their most precious possessions, their children: “In 1959, only one per cent of Canadian children in custody were Native; a decade later, the number had risen to 40 per cent…”

Tie this child grab in with the mid-1800s establishment of Indian day schools and with the late-1800s establishment of Indian residential schools- institutions where the white teachers perceived their most important duty to be to teach Native children to be ashamed of who they were- and it adds up to a wholesale attempt by government to kill First Nations cultures by destroying pride their children had in their heritage. The results for the children were horrific- the mental, physical, and sexual abuse dished out in these homes and institutions badly damaged, and in many cases extinguished, self -esteem.

The adoption of First Nations children even domestically in Canada has had high profile visibility. Former Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien and his wife adopted Native a child, for example. Many of the children, however were sent to the U.S..

Also see Stolen Nation: For more than 20 years, Canada took native children from their homes and placed them with white families. Now a lost generation want its history back. Which details how sealed and amended adoption records are part of the lasting legacy of the “scoop” era used to lock First Nations adoptees away from their biological kin.

Further, due to the record keeping practices of the time, we may never know the full scope of how many children were taken through adoption:

Even now, researchers trying to determine exactly how many aboriginal children were removed from their families during the Scoop say the task is all but impossible because adoption records from the ’60s and ’70s rarely indicated aboriginal status (as they are now required to).

Those records which are complete, however, suggest the adoption of native children by non-native families was pervasive, at least in Northern Ontario and Manitoba. In her March, 1999 report, “Our Way Home: A Report to the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy on the Repatriation of Aboriginal People Removed by the Child Welfare System,” author Janet Budgell notes that in the Kenora region in 1981, “a staggering 85 per cent of the children in care were First Nations children, although First Nations people made up only 25 per cent of the population. The number of First Nations children adopted by non-First Nations parents increased fivefold from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Non-First Nations families accounted for 78 per cent of the adoptions of First Nations children.”

Similarly, “One Manitoba community of 800 people lost 150 children to adoption between 1966-1980,” reports Budgell, who prepared the report in conjunction with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.

Another article from 2001, Manitoba Repatriation Program Connects First Nations Adoptees with Their Heritage explains the use of the repatriation program by Aboriginal ‘adoptees’:

Thousands of First Nations children were placed into adoptive homes in the U.S., often through private agencies in Alaska, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Adopting a native child was relatively easy for U.S. parents. After paying a registration fee, parents could take a native child home without going through any criminal checks or preparation classes.

U.S. agencies have been complicit in these crimes against First Nations peoples.

While there have been certain ‘reforms’ in the Canadian child welfare systems, allowing for increased Native people’s input, the bottom line remains, First Nations children remain disproportionately represented in the pool of adoptable children.

In the U.S. in 1978, ICWA, the Indian Child Welfare Act passed, protecting First Nations children from being removed from their tribal context. (Though baby dump laws/legalized abandonment laws/Baby Moses laws circumvent ICWA.) Canada unfortunately has no similar law protecting aboriginal children.

Quoting briefly from this description of the film Red Road,

In 1982, the Manitoba government finally agreed to impose a moratorium on the export of children outside of the province, the last province to do so. There was an investigation into the practice. Justice Edwin C. Kimelman wrote a report in 1985 entitled ‘No Quiet Place’, based primarily on looking at the 93 children that were “exported” in 1981. He did not mince his words in his conclusions, saying: “Cultural genocide has been taking place in a systematic routine manner. One gets an image of children stacked in foster homes as used cars are stacked on corner lots, just waiting for the right ‘buyer’ to stroll by”. (as reported in Fournier and Crey 1997:88)…


Why did they take these children from their homes and from their people? There are a number of reasons. Part of it is cultural. Non-Native social workers and agencies have in their minds a set of ideas as to what a “family” and a “good home” are like. For “family”, they think of two parents and their children, the nuclear family. However, there are strong traditions in Native cultures in Canada that think of the family as something larger than this… Then there is the “good home” in terms of physical resources. For non-Native Canadians, this would include a separate bedroom for each child, sewage or a septic tank, and running water. Most Native houses, often structures designed by Indian Affairs, could not meet those “standards”…Sometimes the children were taken away “for health reasons”. This could mean that newborn infants needing to be in or near an urban hospital for treatment would be fostered to a non-Native family who lived nearby and would never be given back to their Native parents. This despite the fact that those parents had done nothing to abuse or even harm the children.

So let’s revisit those ‘justifications’ so often given to permanently legally sever the ties between Native children and their kin; poverty and substance abuse.

Poverty globally, is used as a barometer for ‘unfit parents’, and thusly used as an excuse to strip children from their biological kin. Such is often done under the false meme of “a better life.” (I have written about such before.) Yet the ‘better life” false meme can also be used as a cover to redistribute children of those governments oppose, politically culturally, etc. (Such tactics are frequently used in politically unstable conflict zones where use of violence against a population is encouraged, such as the Argentinian adoptions of the children of the ‘disappeared’, or in wartime for example.)

Poverty can also be used as an excuse towards ‘resource extraction’ of children. Sometimes all flowery language simply falls away and the outright accusations come out, “those womyn are poor, they can’t provide. We’re wealthy two parent families, we can do what they can’t.” All of which can be reduced to their core argument, ‘the poor don’t deserve their children, only the wealthy should have children.’

First Nations activists are acutely aware of the poverty their people (and yes their children) face societally, they are the first speak out about such as part of almost any discussion of the circumstances under which they live. The situation is not personal, it is not any one single family’s ‘problem’, it is a result of systematic exclusion of a people. Exclusion that has been enforced against aboriginal peoples, as classes of people. Their communities have been denied access to economic resources, they have been forcibly removed from lands deemed to have value, (including resources,) essentially anything of value to their colonizers has been taken from them.

Over and over again, it is easy to see First Nations peoples explicitly lay out the economic disparities they face as classes of people in their grievances. See the “First Nations Drum”, June ’08 Vol, 18, Issue 6 piece entitled National Day of Action draws thousands in support of First Nations or the Assembly of First Nations piece, AFN National Chief Joins Premiers In Call For Action Plan On Closing The Socio-Economic Gap For First Nations as but two very recent articulations of such. The income gap between non-native Canadians and First Nations people is a key point of contention.

Utilization of “poverty” as a crowbar to remove Tribal children is a global adoption tactic, visible around the world, be it in Canada or Guatemala. By laying charges of ‘poverty’ against individual parents, the broader systems of oppression against Tribal peoples as classes of people are ignored.

A second key factor in why First Nations’ legal rights to their own children are so often severed, “substance abuse” is likewise, far from an ‘individual problem’ that can be viewed isolation as if completely disconnected from the context of these people’s lives.

Take this Journal article, Counselling with First Nations Women: Considerations of Oppression and Renewal and summary that deals with counseling Native womyn and the importance of placing the behaviors into the broader context of colonialism they live their lives in:

This article maps the historical background of First Nations women focusing on the residential school system, subsequent intergenerational trauma, and the effects of the Indian Act. Colonization has impacted the health and current roles and responsibilities of First Nations women. First Nations women’s health needs to be viewed in a holistic framework that considers multiple levels of oppression, poverty, colonization, and life as a minority in a dominant culture. Social constructionism provides a new lens from which to question and re-conceptualize ways of working with First Nations women.

In short, one cannot deal with the issues Native parents face without first understanding the context they live their lives in, a context wherein they have been buffeted by wave upon wave of colonialist tactics perpetrated by a variety of institutions such as government and church. For the same State to utilize the very end results of what previous waves of colonialism have done to a people as an excuse to remove their legal right to their own children, continuing similar cycles, goes beyond the height of cynicism. Such can only be viewed as capitalizing upon said cycles. None of this is takes place in a vacuum. Native ‘substance abuse issues’, far from being some personal failing, are often direct results of individuals attempting to cope with previous waves of colonizing behaviours perpetrated by those external to their Tribe.

As I said, this post is merely a starting point to begin to come to an understanding of how adoption is but one tool in a toolbox for penalizing and politically destabilizing recalcitrant populations. Any ‘final word’ on such must be left to those who directly experienced such themselves.

My point in bringing such up was for other Bastards to begin to understand webs of connection and contextualization in regard to ways in which adoption has been used against populations.

I’ll end by once again quoting from Stolen Nation, (referenced above) this time at length, as this spells out precisely what I have been aiming to express through this post:


According to the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, Justice Kimelman’s description of the Sixties Scoop as cultural genocide is accurate. It reads: “Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct people with guarantees against genocide or any other act of violence, including the removal of indigenous children from their families and communities under any pretext.”

So why was the wholesale removal of aboriginal children not considered a crime, or even a wrong, that the Minister of Indian Affairs felt obliged to redress along with the residential school system?

The answer isn’t that complicated, says Kenn Richard, director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto and the man who commissioned the “Our Way Home” report. “British colonialism has a certain process and formula, and it’s been applied around the world with different populations, often indigenous populations, in different countries that they choose to colonize,” says Richard. “And that is to make people into good little Englishmen. Because the best ally you have is someone just like you. One of the ones you hear most about is obviously the residential schools, and residential schools have gotten considerable media attention over the past decade or so. And so it should, because it had a dramatic impact that we’re still feeling today. But child welfare to a large extent picked up where residential schools left off.

“The lesser-known story is the child welfare story and its assimilationist program. And you have to remember that none of this was written down as policy: ‘We’ll assimilate aboriginal kids openly through the residential schools. And after we close the residential schools we’ll quietly pick it up with child welfare.’ It was never written down. But it was an organic process, part of the colonial process in general.”

4 Responses to “Adoption as a tool of cultural genocide, the “child grabs” Canadian First Nations peoples have endured”

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