the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children*

On Valentine’s Day, 2017, Justice Edward Belobaba of the Ontario Supreme Court ruled that the Canadian government breached agreements and failed in its responsibility to indigenous peoples, for its part in a child-welfare program that saw thousands of Ontario’s children removed from their parents, communities and cultures. Now referred to as the “Sixties Scoop”, between 1965 and 1984 some 16,000 children deemed by provincial social workers to be ‘at risk’ were apprehended from their parents and communities, then fostered or legally adopted by non-indigenous families. The Ontario protocols became the template for other provinces, ramifying indigenous families’ distress across the country. In many, possibly most, cases the parents who had their children apprehended were themselves victims of a prior form of state-sanctioned kidnapping and enfranchisement: the residential school system. If the parents were not themselves survivors of residential schools, perhaps suffering the now-recognized symptoms of PTSD or abandonment trauma, they were likely subject to poverty, poor education, underemployment, and the generalized public discrimination and ‘anti-Native’ racism that was the default in mainstream society until very recently.

During the Sixties Scoop, even if a social worker was not stigmatizing indigenous parents and children, and was trying to apply child welfare guidelines evenly to all cases requiring intervention, the parenting assumptions penalized at the very least poverty and denigrated non-European (WASP) traditional practices. Consider these scenarios: A mother of English or French or German ancestry could buy Woodward’s Gripe Water fromgripe-water the local pharmacist and use it to sooth her cranky infant. A mother of Cree, Mohawk or Anishnaabe ancestry who made a tisane including dill or fennel, sugar, baking soda, and watered gin could be accused of providing alcohol to a minor, be declared unfit as a parent, and have her child removed. Yet commercial preparations of gripe water had an alcohol content ranging from 3.6% to as high as 9%, even into the early 1980s (Blumenthal, 2000). A case of domestic abuse with a white family would see the police either ignore a woman’s complaints and leave her and her children with the abuser, or help them get to a shelter; with an indigenous family, it could lead to seizure and permanent removal of the children from their entire extended kindred.

It was the mundane level of hypocrisy, the willingness to assume that indigenous cultures’ parenting practices were by default inadequate and dangerous relative to ‘modern’ mainstream (a.k.a. white) society, and the wider implications and ironies of that attitude, that spurred me to write the following letter, in 1998, to Michael Enright and Avril Benoit of CBC Radio’s This Morning:

Date: Mon, 23 Mar 1998

Subject: Spock’s influence

As a mother and a social anthropologist specializing in mothering and the influences of North American medical personnel in everyday life, I listened with interest to your panel of four mothers discussing their use (and non‑use) of Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care [originally published 1946]. Sheila Kitzenger and Sherry Thurren were also interesting, especially in their discussions of the context of maternal advice at the time that Spock was writing: his book was indeed a revolution for its time, in that it confirmed a mother’s abilities to handle situations, and advised a less regimented, disciplinary form of baby care, with more expressive loving from parents. However, the one question I kept expecting to come up was never asked:  “When everyone else in the medical establishment was advocating discipline, routine, formula over breast-milk, and telling mothers that they needed a doctor’s advice for all aspects of an infant’s care, where did Benjamin Spock get his path-breaking ideas?”
The answer would have been somewhat surprising, certainly to the thousands of American and Canadian families who do not know that the revolutionary child care advice they faithfully followed, and thought of as resulting from North American medical scientific breakthroughs, was in fact heavily modelled upon Polynesian and other First Nations’ child rearing practices. Benjamin Spock’s ideas came out of anthropology, not medicine.
Benjamin Spock was the pediatrician to the famous anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and their daughter Mary Catherine. As your listeners may know, Margaret Mead’s first book, Coming of Age in Samoa [1928], focused on child rearing in Polynesia. She later did similar research in North America and other parts of the Pacific as well. Mead was tremendously influential in areas of social policy in the USA from 1928 to after WWII, but not all of that influence was overt. As her daughter later wrote about Mead: “Margaret’s ideas influenced the rearing of countless children, not only through her own writings but through the writings of Benjamin Spock, who was my pediatrician and for whom I was the first breastfed and self‑demand’ baby he had encountered” [from With A Daughter’s Eye, 1984, William Morrow & Company, Inc].
It is ironic that the great influence aboriginal peoples have had in contemporary North American cultural and medical practice has been so disguised. But there is an even greater irony here:  while at least two generations of white, middle class parents were following re‑packaged aboriginal people’s parenting practices and choosing to nurture and indulge their children for the sake of their good psychological development, First Nations parents were being forced to send their children away to residential schools: There, aboriginal children were subjected to the very discipline, authority and cold regimentation that Mead and Spock helped to discredit.
And we now have the temerity to ask why so much psychological damage is rampant in some First Nations communities, and how is it our concern!

Heather Young Leslie

I wish I had been more forceful in my 1998 letter. I wish I had spoken of racism, tragedy and abuse rather than ironies. At the time, I feared a more candid letter would not be read on air. It has taken so long for an appetite for the truth about generations of Canadian state-sponsored violence against children and families to come into the general discourse (even now, I suspect it is only the liberal-Canadian public who are paying attention). When Justice Belobaba agreed with the complainants that the Sixties Scoop resulted in widespread psychological traumas for the children, their extended families and communities, leading to psychiatric disorders, unemployment, violence,  incarceration and suicide, he was affirming what Indigenous-rights activists have been saying for a very long time, often to deaf or uncaring ears. Yet beyond the thousands of individuals, mostly children, harmed, entire Indigenous nations have suffered as generation after generation lost fluency in their languages, ability with ceremony, technical making and survival skills, intimacy with traditional territories and kinship networks; many simply died. Colonialism and colonization is war that never stops killing.

Although Canada as a nation has engaged with the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s investigation of the residential school system, and now publicly seeks ‘reconciliation’ with Indigenous peoples of Canada, and while our Prime Minister has promised to honour treaties and enact a ‘nation-to-nation’ relationship, there is much that has yet to happen before true reconciliation can happen.  While Carolyn Bennett, the current federal Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, has publicly stated that the federal government will not appeal Justice Belobaba’s ruling, her Ministry has spent millions vigorously applying every loophole they could to refute another child welfare case, this one brought to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, regarding the Government of Canada’s deliberate unfunding and policy blocking of First Nations Child and Family Services. The Tribunal’s Decision was that Canada, via the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, is purposefully discriminating against “163,000  First  Nations children  and  their   families   by  providing  flawed  and  inequitable  child  welfare services to  First  Nations  children and by allowing  jurisdictional  disputes  between and within governments to cause First Nations children to be denied  or experience delays  when  seeking  to  access  essential  government  services available  to  other children“. Despite claiming to welcome the Tribunal’s Decision of January 26 2016, Carolyn Bennett’s Ministry continues as of Feb 2017, to be non-compliant with the legally-binding ruling of the Tribunal. Further, she is speaking about trying to avoid a court-mandated settlement in the Sixties Scoop class action. The 16,000 complainants have requested damages of $85,000 each, less than one year’s middle-class salary, for a total of $1.3B. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet and Finance Minister Bill Morneau have not, as yet, prioritized indigenous reconciliation and fair costs for federal responsibilities in the budget for 2017. 

Most Canadians do not know we are all “Treaty People“, nor how much has been taken from our treaty-partners, how much loss, pain and trauma still reverberates, though I think most people can empathize with having a grandparent or spouse with PTSD, with the fear of loosing one’s home, or the horror at the mere idea of having a child kidnapped, disappear, or commit suicide. While there is much resilience and goodwill within Canada’s Indigenous communities, there is much understandable anger and resentment too. The solution goes beyond the political will to admit wrong-doing, apologize and budget the true costs of complying with historic treaties and Supreme Courts’ and Human Rights Tribunal findings, though those are essential measures. There is reaching out by everyday Canadians to be done too.  A good place to begin is to learn what it is we don’t know: even those who say they are allies of Indigenous peoples, are supportive of the reconciliation cause, or are anti-racist, can learn more, and should.  This is a scenario where what you don’t know can hurt someone, probably a child and or her/his family.

I have three recommendations to start you off: The first is that all Canadians, young and old, multi-generational settler-descendent to first generation immigrant to refugee, read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s  reports, especially their Calls to Action. The second is to view the National Film Board‘s We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, Alanis Obomsawin’s latest documentary, which follows and makes easy to understand, the many-years history of the Human Rights Tribunal’s hearings and eventual findings. The third is to take the University of Alberta’s online course Indigenous Canada (enrolment begins March 2017; it’s free to audit, cheap to get a certificate). These are things that Community Leagues, Rotarians, Lion’s Clubs and other service organizations, book clubs, walking and yoga groups, church parishes, curling and hockey and baseball teams can do together. These are easy initial steps to reconciliation that all non-Indigenous Canadians can, and should, take.

That’s not the end of course. We all must know and agree to respect the Treaties that the nation-state of Canada is built on; learn what is in the treaties governing where we live now and where we were born (if there even is a treaty), lobby our provincial and federal governments to stop asking First Nations for just a bit more of their land, water  and wildlife habitat. A “nation-to-nation” relationship is like consenting to sex: “no” must be respected; it doesn’t mean “Try harder to convince me” or “If you say no, we’ll just take it”.  In general, we must be mindful of the place we inhabit, and what impact our actions have on our treaty partners, wherever we live. This is going to be tough for those who have benefited from privilege and not had to recognize treaty responsibilities, certainly. Reconciliation is a long, slow, multi-party process. It requires so much more than “I’m sorry”.  Now is the time for the non-indigenous peoples of Canada to paddle the boat. Because, to recycle a saying from my youth: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”** and this problem is one that persists in abusing children and their families. That’s not what we mean when we proudly exclaim our “Canadian values”.


*Hubert Humphrey. Remarks at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, November 1, 1977.
**Eldridge Cleaver. Presidential candidate speech at UCLA, April 10, 1968 (Listen at 51:05 mins), also speech to the San Francisco Barristers’ Club, September 1968.