Disappearing children: after the Sixties Scoop

Words: Alicia Colson


The rising profile of Black Lives Matter around the world – and the rising attention paid to the police brutality they protest – has raised questions about other historical injustices that go broadly unacknowledged by the global community. For example, whether or not you’ve heard the phrase ‘the Sixties Scoop’ probably depends on where you live, your heritage, and whether you ever had the opportunity to learn about the history of Indigenous peoples. Many don’t. 

The word ‘scoop’ is mild, and therefore deceptive. It’s the name given to a component of Canada’s cultural genocide conducted against its Indigenous peoples during the 20th century. 

It’s maybe more likely that you’ve heard of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission is one of several components of the Federal Government’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). IRSSA is considered the largest ever class action settlement in Canada: it recognised the damage inflicted by residential schools on Indigenous peoples, and raised a multi-billion-dollar fund designed to help former students recover from their experience. IRSSA came into effect in September 2007.

The residential school system was established during the 1880s by the Canadian Federal government, and lasted to the end of the 20th century. The principal objective of the system was the assimilation of Indigenous children into mainstream white Christian Canadian society. Christian churches were given funding to educate, convert, and assimilate Indigenous children; from the outset, the policy was designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. 

Children were forbidden to acknowledge their own culture and their heritage; siblings who attended the same school were forbidden to speak to each other in their own language. These schools indoctrinated students in the foundational myths of Euro-Canadian Christian society, and trained them in preparation for lives as manual laborers or domestic workers in white Christian homes. 

The last residential school closed in 1996, with a total of 130 existing between 1831 and 1996. Seven generations of children were removed from their families and communities and placed into state care – an estimation of 20,000 individuals. Patrick Johnston, of the Canadian Council on Social Development, first used the term ‘Sixties Scoop’ for his report ‘Native Children and the Child Welfare System’, published in 1983. Bluntly speaking, social workers ‘scooped up’ Indigenous children.

The principal objective of the system was the assimilation of Indigenous children into mainstream white Canadian society. Christian churches were given funding to educate, convert, and assimilate Indigenous children; from the outset, the policy was designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child’. 

The report issued by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described their task under IRSSA as ‘a commission like no other in Canada’. The Commission spent six years journeying across the country to hear from the Indigenous people seized from their families as children: more than 6,000 witnesses spoke, most of which were former students. Mainly, they spoke of the physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicted on them by the residential school staff or their non-Native adopted families. Thousands died, as children or later, as a result of the psychological harm inflicted on them. More still are missing.

On 11th June 2008, the Canadian government issued a formal apology in the House of Commons for the damage done by the residential school system to Indigenous peoples. On May 28, 2015, Beverley McLachlin, the Canadian Supreme Court Chief Justice, referred to Canada’s treatment of its Aboriginal people as a ‘cultural genocide’ which had commenced under colonial rule. The longer-term consequences of the residential school policy – for knowledge of culture, identity and heritage – remains to be seen. 

Today, ‘scooping’ remains a policy instrument. As this story shows, there’s nothing new about removing children from families designated undesirable and placing them in state care. 

In Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’. The US-backed dictatorship was determined to root out dissidents and political opponents in a programme called ‘the process of national reorganisation’, which Argentinians referred to as the Dirty War. Bodies were blown-up, buried, or deposited in the sea. Dissidents’ children were kidnapped, and the babies of pregnant women stolen; these children were then abandoned in the streets, left in orphanages, or given as rewards to supporters and officials of the generals in control. The children grew up knowing nothing of their parents, and as part of the regime. DNA is now being used to find them.

A more famous and more recent example is the separation of children and parents at the Mexico/US border. Thousands of children are held beyond the 72-hour limit set by a patchwork of legislation and a court settlement by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the Trump Administration; these detentions peaked in 2019 at more than 300,000 – for accompanied and unaccompanied children, but detentions have since fallen due to public health concerns. 

An undocumented migrant child who arrives at the US border is initially booked into Border Patrol. The Customs and Border Protection subsequently transfers children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which reports to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Staff there, theoretically, then attempt to place children with appropriate family members or other sponsors – but there are records of children being intentionally removed from their families and settled with American foster parents, who are then able to petition for permanent custody.

The impact of Patrick Johnston’s 1983 report in Canada, amid widespread calls for change, led to a shift in child welfare policies during the 1980s. The prior claims of Indigenous extended families to adopt orphans or endangered children took priority over those of non-Indigenous families, and the creation of the First Nations Child and Family Services programme (FNCFS) by the Federal Government returned power to local Indigenous Bands to administer child and family services.

In practice, this meant a simple restoration of power of families over their own children. Finally, on 6th October 2017, the Federal government announced a settlement of $800 million CDN to be set aside for the survivors – the best, seemingly, that could be done to palliate this bleak history, and prevent – in Canada, at least – its repetition.

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Alicia J. M. Colson is a freelance ethnohistorian and archaeologist with a long-standing research interest in the digital humanities as well as higher education in North America and Europe. She has a PhD in Archaeology McGill University, Canada and BA Hons Archaeology, UCL, London (UK). She’s a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of The Explorers Club.