'They were treated like animals': How a Regina family was torn apart by the Sixties Scoop
"Thousands of us really feel like we were not a part of the families."
Except this is an advertisement for the Adopt Indian Metis program (AIM) in a Sept. 20, 1967 issue of the Assiniboia Times newspaper. Their photos are located next to ads for men’s jackets, heavy-duty filing cabinets and classifieds for local bridal showers.
The ad is titled “Is there a home that needs a family?” Interested couples of Roman Catholic faith, with or without children, are invited to inquire. The children’s names are even changed in the ad (Rose Marie, Deanna, Cindy and Bobby), a tactic used to make it more difficult for birth parents to find them.
Michelle and her siblings were eventually placed on a farm in southeast Saskatchewan, but “family” isn’t exactly an accurate description of what awaited them.
“It wasn’t good,” says Michelle, now 51, seated at the kitchen table in her Regina home.
“They were very physically abusive,” she adds. “It was just like they adopted all of us kids to work on their farm.”
One of her earliest memories of the farm is sitting on a platform towed by a tractor driven by her adopted father. She and her siblings were helping him plant evergreens on the farm.
“There was a hole in that platform, and we had to drop trees into that hole, and I can barely remember that, so they put us to work right away,” recalls Michelle. “I must have been like three years old.”
The family’s property stretched across 19 sections of land, where Michelle and her siblings did “every kind of work there is to do on a farm.”
They say the work was accompanied by frequent beatings from their adopted father. Roberta, Michelle’s older sister, recalls one incident during the spring when she was 13 and chasing cattle up a hill.
“So I put a step back to try to put my foot back in my boot, and he whipped me. He whipped me on my back and I had to run around in my sock foot the rest of the way,” says Roberta.
At some point, Roberta had enough. She describes an incident in which Terry lay on the floor in a Quonset as their father kicked him with steel-toed boots. Seeing her brother rolled up into a ball while receiving the beating, Roberta attacked their foster father.
“I took one hand and I took the other hand and I just pounded his head,” she remembers.
Roberta jumped off him and ran into the house, hoping to incur some of his wrath and save Terry from further blows.
It worked. Michelle remembers her father chasing Roberta into the house to begin beating her.
“It was very like living in fear most of our lives,” says Michelle.
Their adopted father passed away in 2007. An obituary published in the Leader-Post describes him as a devoted husband and father. It says he was survived by three children, but makes no mention his adopted, Indigenous children.
“They never once told us that they loved us,” says Roberta. “Never.”
Michelle and her siblings never met their biological parents again until 14 years after their adoption. But even after she escaped the abuses of her adopted home, Michelle struggled with drug addiction, worked in the sex trade, served jail time and experienced the pain of being separated from her own children when they were taken into the custody of social services.
SCOOPEDThe St. Germaines are not the only ones with such a story. Hundreds of thousands of indigenous children in Canada were taken by child welfare workers during what is now called the Sixties Scoop, and many were placed into the care of white families.
Stories of abuse are pervasive among survivors, who became disconnected with their Indigenous heritage and grew up without knowing their natural parents.
In Saskatchewan, Indigenous children were adopted through AIM, a provincial child welfare program established in 1967.
Dr. Jacqueline Maurice, a survivor of the Sixties Scoop herself, authored The Lost Children: A Nation’s Shame. She is currently a clinical preceptor at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine. She’s also instructs youth care workers at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.
She describes AIM as a program with good intentions, but one that was still an outright race-based policy. With some Indigenous people unable to parent because of traumas they suffered in residential schools, the notion was that AIM would help their children. Instead, it severed another generation of Indigenous children from their families.
At the time, Maurice says the effects of intercultural adoptions was not given consideration. “The impact of that wasn’t really a high priority,” she adds.
With the challenge of finding homes for so many children, AIM was formed from a two-year grant provided by the federal and provincial governments. Part of the push to find children homes involved taking out ads in radio, TV and large print ads in provincial newspapers.
Adoptions were fast-tracked, with homes found for children in as little as ten weeks. One of AIM’s founders, Frank Dornstauder, co-authored a paper on the history of child welfare services in Saskatchewan in 2009. It states AIM made an effort to recruit families of aboriginal origin as part of “recognizing the importance of cultural identity.”
The St. Germaines’ experience of not being treated as true members of their adopted family was a common experience for victims of the Sixties Scoop.
“Thousands of us really feel like we were not a part of the families. We were always an outsider looking in, and treated like a visitor and yes indeed kept for income,” says Maurice.
Michelle’s feeling of being more like an employee than a daughter is also an experience other Sixties Scoop survivors have shared.
“I really do believe that some children were farmed out so to speak,” says Maurice.
Because of that mentality, children like the St. Germaines did not get to experience childhood.
She believes the perception of Indigenous children as workers stems from them being seen and treated as a commodity, and describes the government’s handling of the issue as a “wholesale policy of children.”
Michelle and Roberta are complainants in a class-action lawsuit filed by Merchant Law Group against the federal and provincial governments. The lawsuit seeks compensation on behalf of Sixties Scoop victims who were adopted out to white families through the AIM program.
Last week the federal government announced it would provide $800 million in a compensation package to survivors of the Sixties Scoop, with between $25,000 and $50,000 to individuals.
The provincial government said in 2015 that it would apologize for the Sixties Scoop. In August, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said the apology could come before the end of his time in office, which will come when the Sask. Party elects a new leader in January.
TAKENThe last time Shirley Pelletier saw Terry, Roberta, Denise and Michelle before they were taken was in a Regina courtroom.
Pelletier, then 30, was staying with family while her sister looked after the children at home. Pelletier was then in an abusive relationship, and feared returning home after discovering her partner was having an affair.
Pelletier asked her sister to phone a social worker about the situation. Her children were immediately seized by Social Services, and Pelletier attended court to identify them. As soon as she did, they were taken out of the courtroom. That was the last time she saw them for the next 14 years.
“What could I do? I was a broken person,” says Pelletier years later, sitting beside Roberta in Michelle’s home.
The events are still traumatic for Pelletier.
“This is really hard,” she says, tears coming to her eyes. Roberta, who was separated from her mother for so many years, leans in close to comfort her.
“I didn’t need my children to be taken. I needed help from an abusive relationship. That’s what I needed,” says Pelletier. “Taking my children away just made everything worse for me and my children.”
Back then, as Pelletier was left to wonder what had become of her children, their pictures were running in the Assiniboia Times.
“They were advertised in the paper like animals, and they were treated like animals, like slaves on the farm,” says Pelletier. “Now who does that? Who does that to children?”
After getting to know their mother, the siblings came to understand what had happened when they were children. And Pelletier learned what her children had gone through on the farm.
“They told me a lot of sad stories of the way they were treated. And that was my greatest hurt — wondering how are my kids being treated, are they being loved, hoping that they weren’t being abused,” she says.
Pelletier had tried to learn how her children were doing after they’d been adopted. She made an appointment with a family service bureau in the city. She recalls being told her children were fine, and that her daughters were studying ballet.
When she finally met her children as adults, Pelletier was once again living with her partner, Robert. But Michelle and her siblings were only able to know their father for five years before he passed away from lung cancer.
Michelle and her father never spoke of her adoption, but she knows he was hurt by not seeing his children grow up.
“I’m thankful that I got to meet my dad, and I’m thankful that we got to meet our mom and now we do know what family is like,” says Michelle. “Before, we never really knew.”
Michelle has her birth father’s last name, as she had no desire to use that of her adopted father.
While Michelle was fortunate enough to start a relationship with her parents later in life, many children of the Sixties Scoop are not so lucky. For many survivors, Maurice included, those lost relationships are never recovered.
“I’ve met my biological mom and my half-brother, and I can count on one hand the number of conversations we’ve had,” says Maurice.
A TROUBLED NEXT GENERATIONMichelle was asleep when Social Services workers knocked on her door to tell her they were taking custody of her children.
She lived in a house in Regina without proper locks on the door, so she had stuck knives into the door to keep it shut. Her children, toddlers at the time, had crossed the street and rolled down a hill.
Michelle was ultimately handcuffed because she kept trying to take her children out of the social workers’ car.
During her 20s, Michelle hardly communicated with her mother. She temporarily moved to Calgary with her partner. The two became involved drugs, and Michelle worked in the sex trade.
Michelle and her partner were hooked on the street drug “T and Rs.” Also known as “poor man’s heroin,” the pills Talwin and Ritalin were crushed and mixed with water, then injected.
She built up a long criminal record, involving thefts and fraud, to support their habit.
Michelle’s children were continually moved in and out of foster care. She was serving time in jail when her second son was born in 2002.
Watching her daughter struggle with a life of drugs and crime was devastating for Pelletier.
“You want to see your children doing good for themselves. You don’t want to see your children being failures,” says Pelletier.
Michelle’s youngest son was taken into foster care when he was four years old. She didn’t regain custody of him until he was 11.
When Michelle did get a chance to visit with her children, she would constantly inspect them for bruises, fearful they would experience the same abuse she did.
Michelle’s husband, Gabrielle, passed away in 2009 from a leaky heart valve, which she attributes partially to his drug use. Pelletier believes it was his death that motivated her daughter to get clean.
On Oct. 5, 2013, Social Services closed Michelle’s file. She had been clean for four years.
“I was just tired. I didn’t want to live like that anymore cause you have no purpose, no goals,” says Michelle. “I wanted to live for my kids and be an example to them.”
Michelle now has a much more stable life, living Regina with two of her children. Terry and Roberta also live in Regina, while Denise passed away from breast cancer in 2010. She was 49.
Roberta is confident that her sisters would have known a more peaceful life sooner had she been raised by their real mother, and believes the proof is in Michelle’s oldest son.
“She raised Michelle’s little boy, and he turned out really good. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t do drugs, he’s a really good boy. And I wish we were raised by her because that’s the way we would have turned out,” says Roberta.
Instead, Michelle grew up in a home she described as having “no love.” And that was when it was at its best. She and Roberta remember feeling a sense of relief when their adopted father had one of his hands disfigured by an auger.
“He got his hand taken away so he couldn’t hit us anymore,” said Michelle.
The moments of peace she remembers aren’t with her adopted parents. Instead, they came from riding her horse out into the fields, where she and her siblings would build fires and camp out for days, only sneaking back onto the farm to take food from the garden.
The St. Germaines do occasionally have contact with their adopted mother, who they say still refutes that any abuse took place.
While travelling outside the city with her brother last summer, Michelle decided to make a stop at the farm where they lived. She wanted to see the evergreens that they had planted all those years ago. They’re now fully-grown.
No one was home, so Michelle and Terry stood at the foot of the dirt driveway for a few minutes and took pictures.
Standing in front of the farm where she endured so much pain was surreal for Michelle. Asked why she wanted to visit a place that held such terrible memories, Michelle says there were still some moments shared by the siblings that she wanted to acknowledge.
Just like the fires the St. Germaines would build during their temporary escapes from the farm, their love for each other provided warmth in a home devoid of the tenderness that parents provide.
“I had to take a moment to kind of push aside the bad and be grateful that the farm was still intact,” says Michelle. “Even though there was bad memories there, there was still good memories amongst us four.”
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