9 December 2022
ALLYSON STEVENSON-0639 (2)

When Kinship Was Colonized

by Stephanie Cram

Allyson Stevenson’s book, Intimate Integration: A History of the Sixties Scoop and the Colonization of Indigenous Kinship, is both personal and political. From 1961 to the 1980s, Indigenous and Métis children were routinely removed from their families and adopted into non-Indigenous families.

 

Intimate Integration is an expansion on Stevenson’s PhD dissertation on transracial adoption. In the process of writing the book, Stevenson, an assistant professor in the department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, was inspired to examine her own history as a Métis adoptee.

 

“I’ve always known I was adopted. It was something I don’t remember … my parents sitting me down to tell me, it was always just sort of part of my life,” recalls Stevenson. Her brother, to whom she is not biologically related, was also adopted. “It was never … perceived as shameful or different or anything like that, it was just our particular family configuration.”

 

When she decided to write Intimate Integration, she knew it was important that her own story be included.

 

“I came to see more and more throughout my research that it’s important to locate myself, as to my own experience, and make that clear to people … where I come from, and what my understanding of my identity is, so people understand that when they set out to read it,” she explains in our interview.

 

And that journey for Stevenson was an act of coming home.

 

“Theorizing coming home is part of critically interrogating the ways in which colonization has disrupted relationships to land, family and our Indigenous histories, while envisioning and enacting decolonization and collective healing,” Stevenson writes in the epilogue.

 

“Coming home has also meant coming to understand kinship, insistence/resistance, and resilience in the face of the imperative to erase the Metis presence from the landscape. Coming home also means someone is waiting for your return. Coming home is landed, embodied, and storied; it stitches together peoples separated by time and space.”

 

Coming home also meant reconnecting with Stevenson’s Métis family on her biological father’s side, after she’d met her non-Indigenous biological mother through the post-adoption registry of Saskatchewan.

 

Although Stevenson focuses on her Métis family in her book, she also has formed relationships with her mother’s biological family that continue to be important.

 

“Once I began reconnecting with everyone that was all really new to me … I didn’t know the region that they came from … and my background, in terms of my Métis family, that was something that I may have suspected, but certainly I didn’t have any evidence,” says Stevenson.

 

While reconnecting with her family, Stevenson learned about the tragic disappearance of her biological father in July 1980 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. As she recounts in the book, his disappearance was memorialized in missing persons posters and in classified ads in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.

 

“This reenactment of his disappearance operates as a ritualistic reminder to the settler population of their legitimate claim to the lands formerly inhabited by my father’s ancestors,” writes Stevenson, who draws comparisons between her father’s disappearance and her own experience as a 60s Scoop survivor. “While there had been several theories about his disappearance, none were conclusive, and so, just as I was erased through adoption, he was erased through his disappearance,” Stevenson writes.

 

Over the years, she has learned more about her biological family, and in particular, her father.

 

“[My father’s family] would welcome me and shared stories with me about him, and about themselves and, you know, [there’s] a lot of cousins and family members on that side of the family around my age,” says Stevenson.

 

She recounts the first time she truly felt connected to her history, her family and her father.

 

“My earliest experience of coming home occurred on the first Christmas I spent with my biological father’s family. There, at my aunt and uncle’s house, a homemade quilt waited for me under the Christmas tree,” Stevenson writes.

 

“My great-grandmother made each of her grandsons a quilt that they received on their wedding day. Since my father never married and disappeared in the 1980s, the quilt was passed on to me once I returned home.”

 

By including her own story of adoption, Stevenson’s book serves not only as an important historic account of the 60s Scoop but is also a welcome addition to personal storytelling on the impacts of transracial adoption in Canada.

 

Historic accounts show that many Indigenous communities were matriarchal, and women played a central role in community decision making. Intimate Integration explores how Indigenous women went from playing a pivotal role in their communities, to being systematically discriminated against through provincial and federal policies.

 

“They’re so important and central to the survival of Indigenous nations,” says Stevenson. “Their roles as mothers and grandmothers are of course important, but they are [also] leaders and knowledge keepers.”

 

A visible shift occurred with the arrival of settler communities to Canada, and the imposition of the Indian Act and child welfare programs, which unfairly targeted Indigenous women and children.

 

“Women’s lives are being impacted the most directly by this. [They were] under the scrutiny of social workers—having their children removed without their consent or consideration,” she explains.

 

The Indian Act of 1876 has a well-established history of undermining and discriminating against women.

 

“Who could claim Indian status in Canada for the purpose of the Indian Act, placed much greater emphasis on the male line of descent and the legitimacy of children,” Stevenson writes. Under the Indian Act, First Nation women who married non-First Nation men lost their status, and their children were also refused Indian status.

 

Over the years, after countless legal challenges brought by Indigenous women, the federal government has made amendments to remove sex discrimination in the Indian Act, but entire generations of First Nation women have been excluded from their communities as a result of past wrongs.

 

Beyond discrimination based on race in the Indian Act, Indigenous women in Saskatchewan also had to contend with the Unmarried Mother’s Act of 1946, which was framed as providing supports to single mothers, but usually was a tool for the forced removal of their children. For Metis women in particular, the discrimination was severe.

 

“Métis women experienced a distinctive version of discrimination that effectively segregated them socially and economically from both Indian and white society,” writes Stevenson.

 

In fact, Métis women didn’t even qualify for services offered to other mothers under the Unmarried Mother’s legislation.

 

“In part, it had been feared that Métis women would ‘reproduce carelessly’ and look to the state for assistance, since it was believed that there was not a cultural stigma attached to unwed motherhood,” writes Stevenson.

 

TARGETING MÉTIS PEOPLE

Though the 60s Scoop is not a new topic, Intimate Integration is distinctive in illustrating the unique experience of how Métis families were impacted. Stevenson explains that the inspiration for the 60s Scoop was taken from a failed experiment begun in 1939, that saw 21 Métis families from the Punnichy area in Saskatchewan forcefully relocated from road allowance communities to the northern village of Green Lake. Road allowance communities were made up of displaced Métis people who formed communities on Crown land when cities on the prairies forced Métis to relocate as settler developments expanded.

 

In addition to relocating the families, Saskatchewan opened the Green Lake Children’s Home to house orphaned and, what the province deemed “neglected” children.

 

“The case of the Green Lake Children’s Home represents a bridge between the past policy of segregation and relocation through institutionalization, and the later policy of integration into Euro-Canadian foster and adoptive families,” explains Stevenson.

 

The Métis community in the area resented the home and were not convinced the children were receiving adequate care. The home closed only four years after opening and the reasons are unclear.

 

“It was difficult to piece together, truly what the failure was, whether it was the resistance from the community uncomfortable with what was taking place there,” says Stevenson. “There were some interracial issues there at the house itself.” At the same time, there was also “this larger effort to shift away from institutionalization into the socialization of families.”

 

“What we can definitely take away from it, though, is that this is really … a template for what took place in the 60s.”

 

Despite the abrupt shuttering of the home, the province considered the program at Green Lake a success. “In this case, ‘success’ meant that the children were deemed suitable to then proceed to white foster homes far from the security of the local community who could advocate on their behalf,” Stevenson writes.

 

Twenty years following Green Lake, the province created the Adopt Indian and Métis children program, or AIM, under which children were taken from their homes and adopted out to white families. The program marked the start of the 60s Scoop, which would see an estimated 20,000 Indigenous and Métis children removed from their families.

 

CHALLENGING THE 60s SCOOP

In Intimate Integration, Stevenson outlines the beginnings of child welfare laws in Canada in the early 20th century. Decades later, as she details, it was Indigenous women who drove the movement to end the over-reach of child welfare authorities.

 

The stories of Indigenous and Métis women affected by AIM and the 60s Scoop are detailed in Stevenson’s book.

 

“There were so many people that were impactful, and so generous and kind … with this research … but what struck me the most was hearing Nora Cummings’ story,” the author explains.

 

“First of all, [hearing about] growing up in a road allowance community in Saskatoon and the way in which that became incorporated into the city. But then her own story about how a social worker attempted to take her child.”

 

This incident inspired Cummings, who is now a Métis Nation-Saskatchewan Senator, to help form the Saskatchewan Native Women’s Movement to help other women whose children were at risk of being removed from their custody.

 

The Saskatchewan Native Women’s Movement organizers recognized the shortcomings of other organizations, including male Indigenous-run organizations, which commonly did not provide child-care and other supports to facilitate women’s participation. The few supports provided would typically be offered only to treaty women.

 

Stevenson tells how Saskatchewan women were instrumental in bringing the Adopt Indian and Métis children program into question.

“The combined frontal assault on the AIM program forced the department of Social Services to sit up and take notice. The Saskatchewan Native Women’s Movement effectively immobilized the AIM advertising campaign,” she writes.

 

The campaign against AIM was the first time the province considered input from an Indigenous group on matters of welfare policies, Stevenson explains. “It just really inspires me today even, about what can happen when women work together.”

 

More than 30 years after the 60s Scoop came to an end, Indigenous children are still apprehended at higher rates than non-Indigenous children. In 2020, 86 percent of children in care in Saskatchewan were Indigenous, a practice that many advocates have labelled the Millennial Scoop.

 

“The system was designed, at the outset, to remove children from their family,” says Stevenson.

 

Ultimately, changes are needed in the way we understand cultural norms around parenting and Indigenous and Métis culture more broadly. And there needs to be a recognition of the lasting impacts of the 60s Scoop and other discriminatory programs targeting Indigenous parents. The impact of these practices is evident in a class action suit on behalf of 60s Scoop children that currently has more than 15,600 claimants.

 

“People are talking about the importance of preventative services and recognizing that Indigenous ways of caring, the impacts of colonization and inter-generational impacts of residential schools are all factored into the way care is provided.”

 

© herizons magazine July 15, 2021