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Disappeared Nation

March 15, 2009 permalink

The Toronto Star, often silent on the issue of parental rights, writes eloquently when the target of children's aid is aboriginal families.



Nation of lost souls


Marcia Martel
Marcia Martel calms herself as she tells her story to the Star in Timmins.

March 16, 2009, Linda Diebel, NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER

TIMMINS – The last time Marcia Martel saw her mother at home, it was late summer and she was a chubby little Indian kid of 4. She doesn't remember much because she was crying and clutching the tall grass as strange people pulled her away. She was scared of the police and didn't understand why she was being taken from Beaverhouse First Nation on Lake Misema in northeastern Ontario.

Forced into a waiting boat, she sat down. She'd been taught "little children rules" for the water. She fixed her gaze on her mother standing alone against the house until the image was only a speck and then, nothing.

She couldn't stop crying. She felt so worthless, she says, "I knew God Himself didn't want me."

Martel, now 45, is part of a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit filed recently in Ontario Superior Court against the Attorney General of Canada over the treatment of thousands of aboriginal children from 1965 to 1985. The claim alleges the federal government – with constitutional responsibility for aboriginal people, principally through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada– committed "cultural genocide" by delegating child welfare services to Ontario. As a result, it says, children (there are no precise numbers) were stripped of their aboriginal identity by being placed in non-native foster/adoptive homes.

A Justice Canada official referred questions to Indian and Northern Affairs, while an Indian Affairs spokesperson said officials are conducting "preliminary research" for a statement of defence. Meetings with a class-action judge are expected as early as next month.

Martel lived in foster homes until being adopted at 9. She thought her family didn't want her. In an exclusive interview with the Toronto Star, she said of her childhood, "I felt like an (abandoned) puppy."

She battled thoughts of suicide. She says her adoptive mother told her to eat off the floor like the "savage" she was and rubbed her raw to wash off her "dirty" brown colour.

Most Canadians think children are no longer being forcibly taken from aboriginal communities. They've heard about the "kill the Indian in the child" regime over the 150 years children were carted off to residential schools under the auspices of Canadian churches. That sordid story of abuse of tens of thousands of children has come to public attention through a $2 billion class-action settlement, a parliamentary apology to survivors by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the creation of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But it's not over, far from it.

The removal of aboriginal children from their communities dragged on with the "Sixties Scoop" described in Martel's lawsuit and named for the practice of taking newborns from their mothers on B.C. reserves. It continues today.

Federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser reported in 2008 that 8,300 First Nations children, ordinarily resident on reserves, were in care nationally at the end of March 2007. That's more than five per cent of all kids living on reserves and eight times the proportion of children in the general population.

Fraser's report chastises Indian Affairs for, among other shortcomings, failing to monitor the "cultural appropriateness" of child care services for aboriginal children.

"We are still struggling with (child welfare) workers who come into our communities and take our children without consultation," says Arthur Moore, chief of the Constance Lake First Nation, himself a church school survivor. "They have too much power and think we're not capable of looking after our own children."

Adds Chief Keeter Corston, of the Chapleau Cree First Nation: "Marcia's story isn't an isolated incident. They didn't think of her as a person. It's genocide in terms of breaking down a people morally and hoping they will just disappear."

IT'S A LATE winter morning and we're gathered in a Timmins conference room, chiefs, welfare workers and educators, to hear Martel recount her experiences to the Star. Regional aboriginal child services are based in this town, about 800 kilometres north of Toronto, and many of the 49 chiefs from Treaty 9 lands are here for a conference.

Martel, born Sally Susan Mathias, has a strong face, with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and shiny black hair cut in choppy layers. She places sacred symbols on a table before her – eagle feathers, pouches of tobacco and herbs, a turtle rattle, rocks and carvings. She occasionally flashes an infectious grin. Mostly though, she fights back tears, her lips pursed and eyes squeezed shut behind wire-rimmed glasses.

She massages her temples or the bridge of her nose, pausing often. Elizabeth Babin, education director for Wahgoshig First Nation, fans her with an eagle feather to calm her; the air smells of burning sage, tobacco and cedar.

Martel speaks slowly in a flat monotone, as if describing a trip to the grocery store.

She wasn't alone in the boat that day. Authorities also took her sister, Doris Lynn, about 6, keeping them together until Marcia went to another foster home. She wrongly believed her sister wanted her gone. (Five other siblings were left with their family in Beaverhouse.)

Martel thought her mother didn't want her either, discovering only years later it wasn't true. She describes a happy early childhood and never found out why she was taken. But her mother, when in her late 70s, said she was afraid if she had fought for her children, police would have shot her dead.

"That's a normal reaction. Indian people are trained to listen to authority," says Corston. "You're not a real person and only a real person can question authority."

Always, Martel wanted to go home. Instead, she bounced around foster homes suffering, she alleges, physical and emotional abuse. She once ran away and told her story to a police officer but he apparently replied: "Aw, it can't be that bad."

By 9 when she was adopted, she'd lost her Algonquin language and felt she belonged nowhere. Suicide wasn't an option because: "God doesn't like it if you kill yourself."

She liked school but later saw a children's aid file describing her as "slow" and not likely to progress beyond the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. Authorities apparently told her family she was mentally handicapped.

Over her protests, an Ontario family with four children adopted her. She says her adoptive father was kindly, if distant. When he died some 15 years ago, he left her a small inheritance. Her adoptive mother, she claims, was cruel.

Martel had been carting around a beloved stuffed tiger. One day, her adoptive mother told her to bring Tigger outside, where she'd lit a bonfire. The woman apparently claimed Tigger was full of bugs – Indian bugs – and made her thrown him into the fire. She says she was forced to watch him burn.

"Your people loved you but they didn't know how to look after you," the woman apparently said, as she incessantly went about her nightly scrubbings. In her adoptive father's absence, Martel alleges: "I got beat until I was black and blue with everything – spoons, hangers, the vacuum cleaner tubing. ... But she never touched my face."

When the couple divorced, she stayed with her adoptive father. Then, the worst. "Okay, um ... I would have been in Grade 9, I think ... I was 16 and, uh ... I got pregnant" by an unnamed boy. Martel went to live with her adoptive mother in Los Angeles, then moved with her to Texas. The woman wanted to keep the baby.

"I would not allow that. I knew enough about human beings that if you know bad stuff is happening and you're not able to protect yourself, there's no possible way you can protect a baby," says Martel. " So, I, uh ... it was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done ... I gave him up."

Pause. She's sobbing quietly. "He was a beautiful boy." A nurse let her hold him briefly after birth and, "I never saw him after that."

She has one photo. "Nobody in my family ever saw him ... not even my Granny and my Granny loved me."

A few months later, her adoptive mother took her to the Houston airport, handed her a ticket to North Bay, Ont., and put her on a plane. She was 17. All she had was the suitcase she'd arrived with at age 9, filled with little girl's clothes.

An older sister met her in North Bay. Martel doesn't know how her adoptive mother found her sister Nancy; by then, they were alienated and she's forever lost other precious family connections. She tried to regain her Indian status but was told Sally Susan Mathias was deceased. She eventually won it back.

TORONTO lawyer Jeffery Wilson, who's handling the case with colleague Morris Cooper, stresses only Ottawa is named in the lawsuit, even though provincial Children's Aid Society (CAS) agencies were the ones removing aboriginal children from their communities and placing them in care. They did so under the 1965 Canada-Ontario Welfare Agreement.

Provincial legislation in 1985 recognized all services to Indian and native people should be provided "in a manner that recognizes their culture, heritage and traditions and the concept of the extended family."

However, Wilson argues: "That change (in provincial law) doesn't correct what happened before. ... It's shameful. You think you can raise a child and that it's in the best interest of the child to dispense with that child's culture?"

He argues the federal government was "improper and unlawful" in handing responsibility for child services to Ontario in the first place, thereby ignoring its duty to act in the best interest of Indian children "who are particularly vulnerable."

There's a buzz around the lawsuit. Aboriginal leaders see it as potentially precedent-setting and a step toward their goal of ensuring autonomous child care services. Aboriginal child and family services already exist. But many argue the province routinely big-foots them.

Vicky Hardisty, executive director of Kunuwanimano Child and Family Services, based in Timmins, argues all too often the province takes aboriginal children independently, without consulting community leaders. It's such a mess in the north, five Treaty 9 chiefs have banned provincial child welfare officers from their reserves.

Anne Machowski-Smith, spokesperson for Ontario children and youth services, says the law requires local CAS agencies to consult with bands or native communities in the apprehension and placement of aboriginal children. She adds: "We believe that, wherever possible, aboriginal children in need of protection, should be cared for in ways that recognize their culture and traditions."

Hardisty counters: "They always say that and we always tell them it's not happening. We ask them to provide us with proof of this compliance, but they don't. ... There's a huge disconnect."

For many aboriginal families, the lawsuit represents closure.

Once news of Star interest circulated, my phone began to ring with calls for help. Aboriginal adults in their 40s, 50s and older describe a nation of lost souls – Ontario's own "disappeared" – as they search for brothers, sisters and children who vanished into provincial care.

"Can you help me?" asks James Wesley, over a scratchy line from the northern Mountbatten First Nation. One of four kids who were split up, he's still looking for sister, Emma Lulu, and brother, Raymond Randy. "They kept moving me from home to home. ... I pretty much got lost myself."

Nobody places all the blame on Ontario's child welfare system or suggests children should never be removed from parents. Robert Commanda, 49, a plaintiff in the class-action suit living in Peterborough, says CAS officials took him after his mother ran off and left her five little boys alone. The oldest was 5 and kept his siblings, including Robert, 2, alive on chips and pop.

"She left us to die," says Commanda. "I sort of haven't come to terms with that. ... I'm a mess but I'm working on it. I just don't feel I belong anywhere."

The issue, rather, is about ensuring children in foster and adoptive homes don't lose their identity. Aboriginal leaders don't maintain all non-aboriginal families involved are terrible people. But they are fiercely adamant children receive "culturally appropriate" services and argue communities themselves, with their extended families, can best care for children.

MUCH TO her surprise, Martel found an inner strength. It nurtured her through childhood and, in her 20s, periods of homelessness. She says she never drank or took drugs and when, at age 28, her son, now 17, was born, "I realized survival wasn't good enough. My life had to be about happiness too."

She lays two photos on the table. In one, she's a glowing bride in beaded deerskin, shown almost two years ago on a sacred rock near Beaverhouse after she married Raymond Martel. The couple – he a simultaneous translator, she a social worker – live near Kirkland Lake.

In another photo some 40 years earlier at the same site, a plump little girl with glossy hair holds tightly to her pet black cat. It's Sally Susan at 3 with big sister, Doris Lynn. She's smiling with a child's confidence life will be wonderful.

In a roundabout way, that's how it turned out. The Star's Tony Bock photographed Martel against a snowy northern landscape. She's cuddling another pet black cat and looks, well, happy.

She is, she says. Sally Susan Mathias has come home. And the best part? She believes the lawsuit at last shows her meaning in all those rough times.

Source: Toronto Star