Sixties Scoop: Rehoming Aboriginal (Indigenous) Children in Canada

Updated on February 4, 2019
A poster to spread awareness of the case
A poster to spread awareness of the case

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters on September 21, 2017. In a historic first, he candidly acknowledged Canada's darkest shame: the legacy of aboriginal discrimination. He spoke of forced migration, broken treaty promises and family separations via residential schools. These left a devastating legacy on reserves to this day, in a country whose very existence, he said, came without the consent and participation of the Indigenous populations who lived there for millenniums. Trudeau promised to move forward with a review of federal laws and policy, and to support indigenous self-determination.

The Liberal government has since then pledged to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to settle multiple class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of First Nations people known as the "Sixties Scoop". An estimated 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in non-Indigenous homes during a dark chapter of Canadian history.


The "Sixties Scoop" refers to the large-scale removal or "scooping" of Indigenous children in Canada from their homes, communities and families of birth primarily in the 1960s, and their subsequent adoption into predominantly non-Indigenous, middle-class families across the United States and Canada.

The process began in 1951, when amendments to the Indian Act gave Canadian provinces jurisdiction over Indigenous child welfare (Section 88) where none existed federally. By the 1960s, after nearly a century living under draconian and devastating federal policies, such as the Indian Act and residential schools, many Indigenous communities — particularly those living on-reserve — were rampant with poverty, high death rates and socio-economic barriers. With no additional financial resources, provincial agencies in 1951 inherited a litany of issues surrounding children and child welfare in Indigenous communities. With many communities under-serviced, under-resourced and under the control of the Indian Act, provincial child welfare agencies chose to remove children from their homes rather than provide community resources and supports.

From 1965 to 1984, the provincial governments of Canada considered the removal of Indigenous children the fastest and easiest way of addressing Aboriginal child welfare issues. In many cases, the child welfare system did not expect or require its social workers to have specific knowledge about, or training in, Indigenous child welfare. They also did not have to seek the consent of communities to “scoop” newborn and young children from their parents and place them into non-Indigenous homes. It was only until the Child, Family and Community Services Act in 1980 that social workers were required to notify band councils of a child’s removal from the community. Changes to child welfare policy started to occur after (researcher for the Canadian Council on Social Development) Patrick Johnson’s 1983 report and Justice Edwin Kimelman’s 1985 report, No Quiet Place.

During the Sixties Scoop, children were often sent to other provinces, the United States or to a smaller extent the United Kingdom. The white, middle-class families who took them in had no concept of the significance of aboriginal culture with its emphasis on the extended family or tight-knit community. Many of these children grew up largely alienated from their families and communities with little or no understanding of their own culture and identity. In their new environments, they were often discriminated against because of their race, and by the time they reached their mid-teens, the vast majority were running away repeatedly, abusing drugs and alcohol, or turning to crime as a result of identity crises.

Though many adoptive families were well intentioned, literature on cross-cultural or trans-racial adoption in Canada has found that aboriginal trans-racial adoptions consistently failed. Recent studies have shown that such adoptions deteriorate rapidly in the teen years regardless of age of placement, and according to recent statistics, a stunning 85 to 95 percent of aboriginal trans-racial adoptions ultimately fail by the time the adoptee reaches adolescence. As a result, the majority of the aboriginal children adopted as a result of the Sixties Scoop now struggle with a number of identity issues as adults today.

Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel,  the lead plaintiff in the Ontario class-action suit
Beaverhouse First Nation Chief Marcia Brown Martel, the lead plaintiff in the Ontario class-action suit


The 1990s saw a number of class action lawsuits against both the federal and provincial governments (Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan).

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger issued a formal apology on June 18, 2015.

On August 23, 2016, an Ontario Superior Court judge heard opening arguments for a class action lawsuit against the federal government by Sixties Scoop survivors. The claim was originally launched in 2009 but has been held up in court due to federal appeals. The plaintiffs asked for $1.3 billion in damages or $85,000 for each affected individual.

In February 2017, after an eight-year court battle, an Ontario Superior Court judge found the federal government failed to prevent on-reserve children from losing their Indigenous identity after they were forcibly taken from their homes. Justice Edward Belobaba said Canada breached its "duty of care" to the children and ignored the damaging effects of the Ontario-led program.

On October 7, 2017 Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett made an announcement. The Canadian government has reached an agreement in principle with survivors of the Sixties Scoop worth some $800 million, putting an end to years of fractious legal action. She said the move will "begin to right the wrongs" caused by forcibly removing Indigenous children from their birth families.

Bennett said a final agreement still has to be reached, but the government has set aside $750 million for individual compensation. They've earmarked another $50 million for a foundation dedicated to reconciliation initiatives.

All First Nations and Inuit children who were removed from their homes — and lost their cultural identities as a result — between 1951 and 1991 are entitled to compensation. If there are more than 20,000 claimants, each individual will receive a payout of $25,000 and if there are fewer than 20,000 each claimant will receive up to a maximum of $50,000. The government is putting aside an additional $75 million for legal fees.

"This is a day where Canada really is a hero, because this is the first country, in a world of increasing divisiveness, that has said we respect and recognize the right to a cultural identity," said Jeffery Wilson, the lawyer who represented the Ontario survivors. "No amount of money can compensate for the harm that was suffered, but it's a step in the right direction. It's partly symbolic."

Justice Edward Belobaba's ruling in the Ontario class-action lawsuit paved the way for some sort of financial settlement, after Minister Carolyn Bennett said the federal government would not appeal the ruling.

The settlement amount is less than the $1.3 billion the lawsuit sought on behalf of about 16,000 Indigenous children in the province who claimed they were harmed by being placed in non-Indigenous homes under the terms of a federal-provincial child services agreement. The settlement is national in scope, and is expected to put an end to most of the 18 related lawsuits that are active throughout the country.

Federal judge approves settlement on May 11, 2018

Justice Michel Shore made the ruling in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan after two days of hearings in which survivors spoke for and against the proposal.

The settlement would see $750 million directed to survivors, $50 million earmarked for an Indigenous healing foundation and $75 million for go towards legal fees.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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