Priscilla Ireland remembers the day Child and Family Services workers came to Alexander School and “scooped” her up along with her siblings. It was the early 1970s, she was nine years old and lived at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting in class and got called down to the office. One of the teachers said a lady has come for you from CFS in Brandon.
“We got hauled out and taken to Brandon. The next thing you know, we’re in a group home. And that’s where a lot of abuse happened to us… Mentally, physically, sexually, and emotional damages happened there.”
Ireland and thousands of other First Nations children across Canada were removed from their communities by provincial governments trying to deal with child welfare issues. They took children without their families’ consent and placed them in foster or adoptive homes, most of which were non-indigenous and far away from friends and relatives.
The practice continued from the 1960s to the 1980s and became known as the Sixties Scoop.
It broke up Ireland’s family of 12. Six of her siblings were adopted into homes in the U.S. while she and a sister went to the town of Killarney to live with foster parents who were “great to us” but one of their foster sons, a teen, abused Ireland.
At 16, she returned to Sioux Valley to look for her birth mother and wound up adopting her parents’ lifestyle of addiction and bad relationships.
“I chose men like my father because I thought that was normal.”
Now happily married, she’s done battle with depression and suicidal thoughts – as she says, “I’ve been to hell and back, so many times.” It was that struggle that motivated her to help others who also survived the Sixties Scoop.
“I’m okay now, but it’s still hard to talk about it. I’m on the road to healing. I still cry sometimes because I see people hurting and I have tears for them. I want them to be where I’m at today. That’s my mission, my goal.”
The support group she recently started in Brandon for Sixties Scoop survivors is one way of reaching those who need her help… like Sherri Wambidee.
Also from Sioux Valley and now living in Brandon, Sherri Wambidee was taken from her community as a young girl. She finds it hard to tell her story without breaking down. Events from her past merge with more recent memories as she tries to make sense of the grief.
“I’m 55 years old, and I quit drinking 16 years ago,” she begins. “I got alcohol poisoning and wound up in hospital. I went to AFM (Addictions Foundation of Manitoba) to quit drinking.
“I lived in Sioux Valley as a kid. There was always people drinking and fighting. It scared me. I lost my family… My parents and some of my siblings died of alcohol.”
Like many scooped children, Wambidee was taken from the reserve and placed with loving foster parents who did their best but simply weren’t able to give her the indigenous cultural foundation she needed.
Wambidee had the added challenge of receiving only a Grade 7 education, but she has managed to build an independent life. She has a boyfriend, a cat, and an apartment of her own where she does sewing, beadwork and other handicrafts to sell at fairs.
She has submitted a claim for her share of the settlement the Canadian government agreed to pay Sixties Scoop survivors. She’s already planning to augment her home-based business when the money comes.
Reverend Don Bernhardt
The support group started by Priscilla Ireland a few months ago now has a home base thanks to Reverend Don Bernhardt, formerly of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Virden, now rector of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the core area of Brandon.
He offered Ireland space at the church to hold her group meetings. The first one attracted about 15 people and has been growing. Scoop survivors from across Western Manitoba are invited to attend.
Although churches weren’t involved in perpetrating the Sixties Scoop, Bernhardt says he felt compelled to reach out and try to help survivors.
“We in the church are trying to understand our First Nations brothers and sisters, their spirituality and how we can walk beside them. When I hear the stories of Sherri and Priscilla and the others, you can always trace the damage back to residential schools and the church was hugely involved in that, so we have a job to do there.
“I’m here to listen, not tell them what to do. That’s why we provided the space.”
Meanwhile, Ireland continues the lifelong work of healing herself and other survivors which, for now, includes spreading the word about the settlement claim process so everyone who is entitled to compensation gets it.
She often fields questions about it and helps survivors complete their claim forms, which must be submitted by August 30, 2019.
When asked if the money will bring justice, she’s thoughtful.
“Yes and no… Everyone keeps talking about reconciliation. Let’s put it into action together as a nation, let’s heal and go forward. Not just the compensation but let’s start as a nation to walk together.”
About The Sixties Scoop:
In the last century, many reserves suffered from poverty, high death rates, and child welfare problems stemming from federal policies like the Indian Act and residential schools. When jurisdiction over First Nations children was transferred from Ottawa to the provinces in 1951, they chose to remove children from their homes rather than provide in-community support.
It’s estimated that more than 20,000 children were taken from their families, about half of them adopted by Americans and others sent overseas.
In Manitoba over a ten-year period, about 3,400 indigenous children were adopted. Eighty per cent of them were sent to non-indigenous homes.
A class-action lawsuit was launched against the Canadian government in 2009. Eventually, the court ruled in favour of the victims and on October 6, 2017, the federal government announced a settlement of $800 million would be divided among Sixties Scoop survivors. Claims can still be submitted at sixtiesscoopsettlement.info for the next two months.
Source: Canadian Encyclopedia