Nakuset, who goes by only one name, was pleasantly surprised that about half the people in the audience raised their hands when she asked who had heard of the “Sixties Scoop.”
That’s what Canada’s First Nations call the removal of thousands of indigenous children from their families from the 1960s until the ’80s. The kids were placed with non-indigenous adoptive or foster parents, often far away. The result, they say, was a loss of cultural identity and lifelong psychological harm.
Nakuset, who was one of those children, was speaking at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount, Que., on April 30, at the first annual Victor and Sheila Goldbloom Symposium.
Addressing a predominantly Jewish audience was not unfamiliar to her; Nakuset was adopted by a Montreal Jewish family and raised Jewish.
She says that although her parents meant well, it was not a happy experience and, as soon as she turned 18, she left that home and eventually went on to rediscover her own identity and people.
“Nakuset,” a name given to her by a Mi’kmaq elder, means “sun” and is the mononym that she goes by publicly.
She found out that she is Cree, from the Lac La Ronge band in Saskatchewan.
Nakuset, who is the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, recounted that she was taken at age three from Winnipeg, where her mother was living, to Montreal, under an adoption arranged by Jewish Family Services (JFS). JFS handled a lot of similar cases.
“I was chosen from a stack of photos of kids,” she said.
Social workers sent out by provincial governments went to reserves and decided whether parents were capable of raising their children, often based only on poverty, which was often defined as a lack of running water, a fridge or an indoor toilet, she said.
Nakuset acknowledged that her removal was probably valid — her mother was an alcoholic and neglected her and her sister — but believes most were not. She pointed to a 1970 government advertisement in the Montreal Gazette offering “Indian” and Métis children for adoption.
“Most came from far away.… The idea was that the further away they were sent, the harder it would be for them to retrace their steps,” she said.
JFS advised her adoptive parents not to reveal her origin, to change her name and pretend she was Jewish by birth.
“They said, ‘This would be best for her’; this was a colonial idea, to erase my roots so that I would grow up as a nice Jewish girl,” she said.
But her looks set her apart at school and camp. “My parents said (to) tell them I’m Israeli; they thought they were doing a good thing.”
Nakuset did form a loving and close relationship with her adoptive grandmother, and the older woman was the one who helped her reconnect with her birth family and regain her indigenous status.
Nakuset has headed the Native Women’s Centre since 1999 and is co-president of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network.
The battle continues today to ensure that indigenous children put into foster care are raised with that identity, she said. A high percentage of clients seeking assistance at her centre were in foster care, and now their children are in foster care, she said.
The Strategy Network has created a guide for non-indigenous foster parents. The goal is to instil pride in young people about who they are, something Nakuset says she was deprived of growing up. Her latest project is producing and hosting a television show called Indigenous Power that showcases local indigenous talent on Bell TV.
The Temple symposium, entitled, “Imagining Tomorrow: Lessons from Indigenous Youth,” was attended by about 100 people. Honouring the community bridge-building work of Victor Goldbloom, who died last year, and Sheila, the event was conceived in the spirit of the calls to action contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released in December 2015, into the legacy of Canada’s residential school system.
Other speakers included Abel Bosum, chief of the Oujé-Bougoumou Cree Nation in northern Quebec, Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoffrey Kelley and Concordia University Professor Jason Lewis, who is Cherokee, Hawaiian and Samoan, and leads a project to train indigenous youth in digital media.
Bosum said the social and economic conditions of indigenous people in Quebec are generally better than elsewhere in Canada. The signing of a “nation-to-nation” agreement with the province in 2002 and the federal government in 2007 that places First Nations on “an equitable footing” with regard to economic development on their traditional territory has improved the standard of living in those areas.
“We have had our own quiet revolution (over the past 40 years); the incremental gains represent nothing short of a revolution,” he said. “It’s been a long path to our own tikkun olam, undoing the damage done to us by colonialism.”
Kelley said Quebec aboriginals, about half of whom are under the age of 30, are gravitating to cities, not only Montreal, but also smaller towns like Val d’Or and La Tuque, “a transition that is sometimes smooth, but often not.”
The major challenges he sees are improving education, including school success rates, providing more “culturally adapted” social services and justice, and creating employment opportunities. The latter, he said, must involve the private sector, as well as government.
Society must collectively work to overcome the consequence of long-term racism, he said
“Awareness is part of the solution, and events like this are key in getting to know who our indigenous neighbours are,” Kelley concluded.