Skip to content

Survivors share stories at Sixties Scoop exhibit

Meredith Kerr Journal Staff Survivors, dignitaries, and community members gathered to view and discuss the “Bi-Giwen: Coming Home – Truth Telling from the Sixties Scoop” exhibit at the St. Paul Recreation Centre on Feb. 12.
Meredith Kerr photo

Meredith Kerr

Journal Staff

Survivors, dignitaries, and community members gathered to view and discuss the “Bi-Giwen: Coming Home – Truth Telling from the Sixties Scoop” exhibit at the St. Paul Recreation Centre on Feb. 12.

The travelling exhibit tells the story of the government practice that is now known as the Sixties Scoop. The Sixties Scoop saw approximately 125,000 indigenous children removed from their homes and placed with foster or adoptive families outside their communities, between the 1950s to the 1980s.

Adam North Peigan is the President of the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta (SSISA). He said it’s no mistake they chose St. Paul as their first stop with the exhibit.

“Everybody knows about the residential schools, everybody knows about what happened through the residential school process, but what Canadians and Albertans need to understand is that beyond the residential school there was something else that happened within our indigenous communities across Canada,” said Peigan.

Coun. Nathan Taylor, speaking on behalf of St. Paul Town, said he struggled to find the right words for the event.

“What is often needed most is an open ear and not an open mouth. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here with an open mind and open heart, and to listen,” said Taylor.

Kathy Hamelin, the secretary for SSISA, shared some of her story. She spoke of how she spent the first 14 years of her life living with her grandparents in Peace River before being apprehended and placed in a Dutch and German farming community where she was the only non-white person.

“I remember my biggest fear was that I would lose my language, because Cree is my first language. That was my biggest fear because I had absolutely no one to speak Cree to. Fortunately for me, one of my foster mothers bought me a tape recorder. I have no idea why she did, but I’m sure glad she did,” said Hamelin, who spent hours recording herself translating Gone With the Wind into Cree and naming the plants, animals, and objects around her.

After running away and being picked up by the police and returned to foster families or placed in youth detention centres several times, Hamelin eventually made it back to Peace River, to her family, and to her language.

“One of the integral differences between residential school survivors and Sixties Scoop survivors that people don’t know, and even our people never thought about, is that with residential school survivors some people when they were children, they were able to see each other. They were all from the same community. They were able to see each other’s faces. They may not have been allowed to communicate with each other, and that was a horrendous situation, a painful situation, but most of them were returned to their communities. With Sixties Scoop survivors, we were completely cut off from our people, our families, our communities. Completely cut off. Some people were even adopted out to European countries, New Zealand, the U.S. A lot of survivors did not even know they were indigenous. Residential school survivors knew where their roots were, knew who they were,” said Hamelin.

Sandra Relling, the treasurer for SSISA was apprehended from the hospital as an infant and reconnected with her biological family as an adult.

“But then I really had to question who I was as a person. Because the person I had grown up being wasn’t necessarily the person I was becoming as an indigenous person,” said Relling.

Relling said the biggest part of her healing journey has been coming to understand that she is not alone, as she connects with other survivors of the Sixties Scoop.

“Now we have the opportunity to share in a more open, broader setting so everyone gets a sense of what happened in this era and can formulate the work we need to do so it never happens again,” said Relling.

Herb Lehr is the director of SSISA. He’s from the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement. Lehr was taken in 1962 and spent the next 14 years in care in the St. Paul area.

“Some of the homes were in this town. And the social work department was based out of here. The guy who was in charge of it (Dr. Jean Lafrance), he’s retired now, he wrote a book called ‘Red Brother, White Brother’ where in it he talks about some of the atrocities he was part of,” said Lehr. Those atrocities include some of the abuses Lehr and his sisters experienced while they were in care.

“I go back to my community of Fishing Lake many years later, and you’re not accepted in your own community anymore. They say ‘Oh you left.’ They don’t remember you left in the back of the social work vehicle with the RCMP,” said Lehr.

He said as an adult now, he finds the statistics reported about the Sixties Scoop to be traumatizing, especially the number of people who were taken and are now dead. It’s estimated only 25,000 of the 125,000 children removed in the Sixties Scoop are still alive today.

“I’m 60 years old. That’s a pretty high average for 90 per cent to be dead at 60,” said Lehr.

Sharon Gladue-Paskimin is the Vice-President of SSISA. She said the time spent in St. Paul last week was an excellent opportunity to connect with mainstream Albertans.

“We had more non-indigenous people than indigenous people attend this national exhibit, and that was our main intent. It was very emotional. We had non-indigenous individuals come up to us and express how saddened they were that this happened. They were shocked. They didn’t know, they had no idea this happened,” said Gladue-Paskimin.

The exhibit is part of an awareness campaign by SSISA, and the result of several years of efforts by the organization’s board, who all made statements about their gratitude to Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills MLA Dave Hanson for his part in having the Sixties Scoop recognized provincially. Hanson is the Indigenous Affairs critic and led the charge to pressure the provincial government in to meeting with SSISA after the group had been stonewalled for several months and approached him "out of frustration."

Premier Rachel Notley made a formal apology to survivors in May 2018, a little over a year after Hanson was contacted by SSISA.

“If you sit and listen to the stories of some of the things that took place with these kids, I shared this in the legislature, we lived in some of the same conditions when I was a kid, and no one came to ‘rescue’ us. It was interesting that they only chose to apprehend native children,” said Hanson.

The conditions Hanson is referring to include a lack of indoor plumbing, electricity, and eating wild game. In comments to the Journal after the exhibit, he said acknowledging and apologizing for the historic wrong is worthless if the effort is not made to fix the system today, so those wrongs won’t be repeated.

Roughly 60 per cent of children in care in Alberta are indigenous. Changes to the child welfare system have happened over the past year, including strengthened reporting requirements following incidents, and a requirement to notify First Nations when there is a guardianship application involving a child from their band.

The next stop for the exhibit will be the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement on Feb. 26. From there, it will also travel to Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, High Level, Peace River, Fort McMurray, and the Gift Lake Métis Settlement.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks