As a survivor and leading academic expert on the ‘60s Scoop era, University of Regina social work professor Raven Sinclair has been an important voice on the lasting impact of the forced child welfare system on Indigenous communities within Canada.
Sinclair has written several articles on the forced relocation of Indigenous children to non-Indigenous environments from the late 1950s until the 1980s across Canada, during a period known as the '60s Scoop. In 2016, she produced and directed her first film, There’s a Truth to be Told on the impacts of the era in the Splatsin Community, the most Southern tribe of the Shuswap nation in B.C.
As a leading academic on the era, her work has been cited in publications such as The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Sinclair will be speaking for a free event at the Glenbow Museum on Wednesday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. as well as at Mount Royal University at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 for a free public talk in Lincoln Park, room J301.
The Calgary Journal spoke with Sinclair ahead of her visit to explore her takes on the evolving understanding the '60s Scoop, the role of Indigenous voices in academia and the ways in which colonial history affects all Canadians.
Calgary Journal: What will you be speaking about in Calgary this week?
Raven Sinclair: At Mount Royal, the title of the talk is Enlightenment from a History of Trauma and basically I will be talking about resilience. Often times when we hear stories about Indigenous people and Indigenous issues, it can be pathologizing because the reality is we have this collective colonial history and for Indigenous people, that history is fraught with imposed trauma. In terms of dispossession from land, movement onto resources, legislated lives through the Indian Act, forced residential school attendance and forced removal of children through the '60s Scoop. And so that history in the last six or seven generations has created a form of intergenerational trauma. And yet despite that, Indigenous people have persisted and resisted and prevailed.
And so I like to highlight what I believe are some of the reasons why we prevail and why we’ll continue to prevail in spite of these challenges of colonialism.
CJ: Why do you feel these topics are something that are needed to be continually explored within our modern setting?
RS: Your wording is very interesting – “In our modern setting.” Our modern setting exists because of history. We have created our system and structures because of history. So if we just sort of operate only looking at contemporary events and activities, we’re operating in a vacuum.
One of the things I think is really important for settlers to think about is their own family and ethnic history, because people didn’t come to Canada for no reason. Most groups that came to Canada came here because of oppression and discrimination. But now that they’re here and have blended into this social and ethnic melting pot, people forget their own history. And that’s significant for how we operate as families, as communities and so on.
In the academic field, historical issues are important because they help to explain why we are where we are. And so for Indigenous people, when I look around and say “Okay, there’s a lot of children in the welfare system, why is that?” That didn’t happen in a historical vacuum. And so to understand it and possibly to find solutions to it, we do have to look at the historical piece
That whole comment of ‘Why can’t people just get over it and move on?’ is really just a silencing tactic because most people that say those sorts of things don’t actually know about Indigenous history. And in fact, they don’t even know about their own history.
So from my perspective as an educator, that’s a real indicator that we do need to look at these issues and we need to understand them, because the solutions I think are collective. The problems were made collectively, and I think the solutions are going to found collectively as well.
CJ: I spoke with Audra Foggin (Mount Royal University Child Studies and Social Work professor and 60s Scoop Survivor), and she spoke about meeting you in Ottawa where you had a discussion on the importance of Indigenous voices in academia and in these setting. What do you think the importance is in having these authentic voices within an academic setting?
RS: Well when you look at the history of academia, you need to look at some of the enlightenment philosophers and the evolution of education, because it’s really very Euro-Centric. So modern prevailing philosophy and thought comes out of medieval Europe. And as a result, other knowledges – not just indigenous in North America, but also Asian, Southeast Asian and so on – those systems of thought have really been relegated to the periphery. So it’s about giving voice to the other knowledges and other philosophies and understanding that European thought doesn’t apply to everyone. There’s other ways of understanding the world. And to me, that’s important. It’s about centring the other forms of thought and recognizing that Indigenous thought and philosophy existed since time immemorial.
What’s interesting when you’re an academic and you start to study some of these more esoteric thought or ideas is that you start to see how Western science, in some ways, is catching up to Indigenous knowledge.And that comes as a surprise to people – the depth of our knowledge comes as a surprise to people, because, you know, the stereotypes that early settlers came with and the stereotypes that prevail now are that our ways of being were backwards and simplistic when the opposite is true. Settlers would not have survived here without us – without out support, because we lived here. We understood this climate, we understood our connection to whatever sort of geographical location we lived in and we flourished.
CJ: What do you think the importance of, in the case of the '60s Scoop, bringing survivors together is? What impact does that have on reclaiming culture and such in bringing this community together?
RS: The National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network has been in operation for about six years now, going on seven years, and (social justice activist organizer) Colleen Cardinal has created these gatherings for four years now – we just finished the fourth one in September. The significant thing about that is Indigenous children who were removed from family for whatever reason and placed in non-Indigenous homes, grew up with an absence of family, community, culture [and] language.
And one thing that’s an interesting basis of comparison is that we understand that the residential school were really problematic in many many ways, but for those children, they weren’t in isolation. Yes, many of them experienced a lot of tragedy and abuse and trauma, but they still had connection with other children who were experiencing the same thing. Adoptees and foster care kids who were removed – many of us grew up thinking we were the only one because we didn’t actually even see other Indigenous people in our particular social milieu within which we were raised. For many of us, that sort of that combination of factors is really only understood by other people who went through the same thing. And that sort of makes sense, because sometimes we’ll hear people say ‘Oh well the residential schools were a good thing.’ Well, they weren’t there [Laughs]. The idea was good, in the same the idea of child welfare is good. In practice though, it can be a very, very different thing.
For many of us, through coming together with each other, we can share common experiences that we don’t get a chance to share with anybody else because other people don’t understand and have their own sort of perspective of our experience. I’ve heard over and over again from survivors who it’s a miracle they’re still here, and the message that they frequently get is “You should be grateful.’ Well why should you be grateful for being raped in a basement and working from sunrise to sunset? Or for someone who, yeah, they’ve got advantages and material wealth, but they’re being sexually abused on a regular basis by someone who’s supposed to be family. Now, those are extreme cases — sometimes the abuses were much more subtle. So it might have been emotional control, or psychological control or racism under the guise of advice. Like, If you don’t behave, you’re going to be like all those other Indians.’
So, there’s a whole other continuum there of experiences, but there are many common threads as a result of the experience. And so coming together with other survivors is a very unique experience. I just had dinner last night with a small group, and every time I’m amazed at the sense of acceptance and understanding, and an unquestioning acceptance of my experience and my reality. That’s what’s significant, because that is a really important healing aspect.
CJ: Wrapping up here, what is one thing every Canadian should know about the '60s Scoop era within our Canadian history?
RS: Well that’s a big one, and in order for people to understand the child welfare scoop and the system of child welfare, they need to understand the whole history of Indigenous-settler relations in Canada and how imperialism and colonialism are certain mindsets that will lead to certain outcomes that don’t necessarily benefit everybody equally. That’s the nature of it, that’s the nature of imperialism, of capitalism, of colonialism. Especially capitalism – we know that there are very wealthy people out there while many of us aren’t [Laughs]. It’s not fair, but it happens. But rather than just sitting there and thinking ‘Well why are they rich and I’m not rich? understand all of the factors play into that, and then you could make better decisions about what you want to do about it or not.
So the '60s Scoop and the child welfare system in relations to Indigenous people, it didn’t sort of emerge in a vacuum. It’s part of a history of attempts of assimilation and social-political-economic control of Indigenous people. I can’t point to one particular thing that people should know about.
What I really want people to know is that the child welfare system is a really important thing, and there are times when it works really really well and it works the way it’s supposed to, which is to intervene in the lives of families when children need care and help. And that’s worked for many Indigenous people and families, and it’s worked for many non-Indigenous people and families. And when it works, that’s a beautiful thing. But when it doesn’t work, and children are removed for no reason, then it’s cause for concern. And we have to understand that with Indigenous people and probably some non-Indigenous people as well, that has happened and we need to work towards preventing it from continuing to happen.
CJ: Thanks so much for doing this Raven, I really appreciate it.
RS: You’re welcome.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
- By Nathan Kunz