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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Coleen Rajotte: Accounting for the 60s Scoop

By Coleen Rajotte, Winnipeg Free Press

Rajotte as a toddler: 'I still struggle with the reality of trying to re-connect with my birth family and culture.'
Rajotte as a toddler: 'I still struggle with the reality of trying to re-connect with my birth family and culture.' (FAMILY PHOTO)
My adoption story as an Indian child starts at the old Grace Hospital in Winnipeg in 1968. That's the year I was legally adopted by a white, middle-class family. Like 20,000 other aboriginal children taken from their families in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s, I have been on a life-long journey to reconnect with my family and culture and to figure out how to fit into both of these worlds.
For many adoptees, this was a traumatic experience. Many were sent across Canada, into the United States and some ended up in Europe. This all happened under the unfettered authority of provincial and territorial child welfare agencies.
This dark time in Canada's history became known as "the Sixties Scoop."
I consider myself lucky. I was placed with caring, adoptive parents who loved me, and an adoptive grandmother whom I cherished and adored. However, like all adoptees I still struggle with the reality of trying to reconnect with my birth family and culture.
Others weren't so fortunate. Many were deprived of love. We were all cut off from any sense of what it was like to belong to a community of our own people. We were not provided with any information about how to reconnect or find our birth families.
In a first for North America, the state of Maine, in an agreement with tribal leaders, is launching a reconciliation process next year to examine the history and legacy of the child welfare system's treatment of aboriginal people.
There is a growing sentiment that Canada, too, needs its own inquiry.
Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Indian Residential Schools, says a similar reconciliation process is needed to understand the impact of the Sixties Scoop.
"I would personally support there being a TRC process for Sixties Scoop kids because I think that their stories have never been given an opportunity to be brought to light," he says.
The Sixties Scoop followed the Indian Residential School era. The unstated intention of the scoop, many believe, was the same -- assimilate aboriginal children into non-aboriginal society.
A Manitoba review of native adoptions released a scathing report in 1985. It referred to the cultural misconceptions held by child-care workers about aboriginal peoples and about the way they raised their children.
"Cultural bias in the child-welfare system," the late Judge Edwin Kimelman concluded, "is practiced at every level from the social worker who works directly with the family, through the lawyers who represent the various parties in a custody case, to the judges who make the final disposition in the case.
"However, they were not the only ones to blame. All parties have been at fault -- federal and provincial governments who failed to resolve their jurisdictional dispute for the care of Treaty Indian children; former directors of child welfare who neglected to build accountability into the system; the child-care agencies, both public and private, who failed to examine the results of their policies and practices and who failed to keep accurate statistical data; the native organizations who remained too silent, too long before demanding control of their children."
My journey to find my own biological family is the topic of a film I have been working on for the last decade.
My birth mother was young and she had travelled from Saskatchewan to Winnipeg to live at what was called Bethany Home, a residence for unwed mothers run by the Salvation Army. The files show she was reluctant to give me up but she did sign the adoption papers.
There are also letters in my adoption file that she wrote to the agency begging for information about what happened to me. My mother was a residential school survivor and I believe that her lack of family connection contributed to her decision.
I am part of the generation that believed we were better off with white families. And this in my view was an act of assimilation and an act of colonization.
I remember like it was yesterday meeting my family 10 years ago. I remember flying to Saskatoon and then driving two hours to the Little Pine First Nation, a Plains Cree community with 700 people living on the reserve.
I was trying to pretend everything was OK. I was doing a bad job -- when I look at the video today, I was a stress mess.
As a journalist I had covered other "reunions" between adoptees and their families and I knew the heavy emotional toll they took on everyone. I remember thinking during that drive how can this be a reunion when I don't know these people?
In my own experiences and working with many other adoptees, I found that we shared a common hope that one day there would be official recognition of what happened to us.
Opinions vary on what should be done but many talk about a formal process to provide answers, compensation, an official apology or support for continued healing and reclamation of our culture and languages. We all agree that it's long overdue.
A process such as the one unfolding in Maine can and should happen in Canada, it only needs political will and public support.
Marlene Orgeron, an adoptee from Manitoba, was sent to New Orleans in 1974. Orgeron and her brothers, Christopher and Eric, were placed with a family in New Orleans after their parents were killed in a car crash.
At the time, extended family who were caring for them were given no explanation as to why they were being taken away.
"I still feel today that this was just another attempt at genocide for aboriginal people," Orgeron says, her voice cracking.
There are no reliable statistics on how many adoptees have returned home. Many have not, either because they are dead, in jail, homeless, have given up or have no idea how to find their homeland and families.
I have seen the deep pain, displacement and anger experienced by adoptees, their families and the adoptee's own children who have inherited the pain and loss of family and community connection.
I was lucky. I have a good relationship with my adoptive family. I continue to try to build relationships with my birth family, many of whom I haven't yet met.
I hope one day my adoptive family and my birth family could meet with the goal of healing, sharing and putting the painful parts of my adoption behind all of us.
More important, I want a formal process to start the healing process.

Coleen Rajotte is a journalist, TV host and filmmaker based in Winnipeg. or join her on Facebook under the name Coleen Rajotte

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