In the year 1950, Métis was a dirty word in the Prairies. There was little advantage to claiming Métis heritage, but much to lose. Housing … jobs … and children.
“Rooster Town” was a poverty-stricken fringe settlement in Winnipeg on the wrong side of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway tracks. In 1959, the Manitoba government hired Jean Lagassé to fix the “Métis problem.” Lagassé viewed Métis people in Rooster Town as sinful alcoholics, lacking ambition and skipping out on Church.
Social service departments and newspaper reports sensationalized Rooster Town poverty and took pictures of its handmade shanties. Articles stereotyped Métis residents as dirty, disease-ridden dependants acting as a catalyst for racist assumptions towards Métis people on the Prairies. The Winnipeg Tribune reported on parents complaining school-age children would catch a disease if they ever touched Métis children from Rooster Town, like modern-day lepers.
Starting in 1951, the federal government began a nationwide process of ripping Indigenous children from their families and placing them with white middle class families to assimilate them into white society. The government moved stolen children outside their province – some worldwide.
Reasons for breaking up families included poverty, poor housing, addictions, and family break up, but what they saw often didn’t reflect what was going on. All seen through a European worldview, social services made many colonial assumptions about how a family should run and raise children, often not aligning with or considering Métis values.
Outsiders saw Métis people as filthy and less than everyone else, calling them half-breeds and the women Squaw. Sexual violence towards Métis women was devastatingly familiar. There was little understanding of who Métis people were, their culture, or that they spoke Michif.
The Manitoba government looked at ways to clear out Rooster Town and other “slum” settlements to resolve the “Métis problem.” Bureaucrats and the larger society saw Métis people as “squatters.” The federal government only acknowledged ownership of land through paper slips.
In 1959, the City of Winnipeg officially started booting out Rooster Town residents with threats of burning their shacks to the ground. After all, the City of Winnipeg had plans to build Grant Park High School. Ironically, Grant Park High School and Grant Avenue are named after the first leader of the Métis Nation, Cuthbert Grant.
Lagassé published a report calling for integration and illustrated Métis people as “overly romantic men” and “promiscuous women” who are fine living in poverty. The report wrongly defined Métis people by mixing up ideas of culture, class, race, and self-identification. These ideas filtered down to Manitoba bureaucracy and influenced decision-making.
This mistake would cost the Métis Nation a seat at the table for generations to come.
Deborah Schwartz, 63, is the youngest of five siblings.
Even through the chaos, Schwartz remembers feeling loved and connected to her mother.
“I can remember the sound of her voice vibrating while I laid on her chest, and how much I loved that,” said Schwartz. “Though I knew she was unwell.”
The Children’s Aid Society started coming around Schwartz’s home in the early 1950s. One by one, social services took each of her siblings and placed with separate foster families.
When the day came for Schwartz to leave her family, at only five or six years old, she felt sorry for her mother. No one told her why social workers took her or where she was going. She recalls seeing her mom two or three times over the next few years, then never again after eight years old.
“There was no understanding that we were mixed blood,” said Schwartz.
There was no empathy for the oppression, abuse, or loss of land, language, and culture Métis people faced. Even today, many people don’t know the historical mistreatment of Métis people that still causes intergenerational trauma.
“It was a common belief that half-breeds were shitty people,” said Schwartz. “You were to erase any connection you had to being an Indigenous person.”
Schwartz never got the chance to learn Michif or experience her Métis culture.
From One Cultural Genocide to the Next
From residential school to the Sixties Scoop, Canada’s federal and provincial governments treated Métis families as unworthy and unfit to parent their children. The federal government embedded this stigma through the justice system, child welfare, and propaganda to convince the rest of Canadian society they knew best how to care for Indigenous children. Perpetuators like social workers, administrators, lawyers, government officials, and judges viewed the communities these children came from as having nothing of value and decided the children were better off making a clean break from their families and communities. Social workers believed not stepping in would deprive children of gaining an economically secure “nuclear family.”
According to Jean Teillet in “The North-West Is Our Mother,” most social workers were completely unfamiliar with the history, language and culture of Métis communities and homes they entered. Social workers based their ideas of proper care on middle-class Euro-Canadian values. For example, when social workers entered Métis homes and didn’t see fridges and cupboards stocked full of food they assumed parents were neglecting their children. Little did they know, these families had a traditional diet of dried game, fish and berries.
From 1967, Saskatchewan began an advertising campaign, including public service announcements, newspaper advertisements, and television and radio spots to promote the idea of adopting Indigenous children. The Saskatchewan government called it Adopt Indian Métis (AIM). Advertisements painted pictures of poor Métis children, whose lives were lonely and without parents to guide them. Social workers dressed up the children in middle-class clothes and described them idyllically as quiet and loving girls or boys who liked to play with cars, to play up desirability.
Foster and adoptive families often prevented children from contacting their families and shielded them from all notions of their cultural background and languages. Some foster and adoptive families targeted Métis children because of their light skin, while others were simply in it for the financial compensation.
According to the Manitoba Métis Federation, children were often physically, psychologically, and sexually abused under non-Métis family care. Other non-Métis families treated these children as possessions who weren’t allowed to express emotions. Stolen from Our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities says physical and sexual abuse were not uncommon and often covered up.
According to Métis Nation Connecting Sixties Scoop Survivors, who provides support, information and resources to help Sixties Scoop survivors, stealing Métis children left intergenerational trauma directly linked to the Métis Nation’s socio-economic difficulties.
The Sixties Scoop left behind a profound shock and a loss of heritage, language, families, and identity.
David Chartrand, leader of the Manitoba Métis Federation, says the provincial government didn’t keep records, so there’s no way of knowing how many Métis people were directly affected by the Sixties Scoop.
A Discarded People
When Schwartz grandmother, Laura Vivier (Granny Piche) was young, an Indian Agent took her from her home and placed her in a residential school in Walhalla, North Dakota. Laura’s father was leading a hunting and fishing expedition in Southern Manitoba when he was informed his children had been taken.
“He was one of the brave souls that actually went into that school and pulled all his children out,” said Schwartz. “That’s how they escaped Indian Residential School.”
After her father fled with his children, their family moved to St. François Xavier where other impoverished Métis people had settled.
Schwartz remembers her Granny Piche as a very strong and healthy woman.
“She was an incredible matriarch,” said Schwartz. “Her children didn’t do as well.”
Schwartz suspects her mother, Frances, was sexually abused and had unresolved trauma, leading her to drink after moving to Winnipeg. People outside the Métis Nation were tremendously racist towards them.
Many Métis people hid their identity to keep safe. “Those people who could pass as being white, did,” said Schwartz. “I imagine Frances had a very conflicted relationship with being Métis.”
Historically, Métis people were the lifeblood of the west. According to the Manitoba Métis Federation, they spoke up to five or six languages, including Michif, French, English, Cree, Ojibway and Bungee. Their ability to communicate in so many languages was essential to the fur trade.
The Michif language is now considered endangered, as fewer than 1000 people speak it today. Losing Métis language means also losing a rich Oral Tradition contained within the words.
According to Teillet, non-Indigenous people ridiculed Métis people for speaking Michif in the school system and community. Many Métis people became ashamed of their identity and lost their language and culture because of it. Consequently, generations stopped handing down the language to their successors.
The result was a loss of heritage language retention among at least three generations of Métis, which means today, most Métis people aren’t able to have a conversation in any of their heritage languages. Since textbook records created by Métis are few and far between, Oral History remains one of the only sources on the Métis Nation.
For nearly a century, Métis bore the stigma of having Indigenous heritage, having mixed ancestry, and wearing the label of a “rebel.” Many Métis downplayed or hid their heritage for cultural safety to better fit into the non-Indigenous mainstream.
According to Catherine Lynn Richardson in her thesis Becoming Metis: The Relationship Between the Sense of Metis Self and Cultural Stories, Métis people sometimes identify as being “in between,” a theory called the third space. It describes how Métis people move between the two cultural areas of European and First Nation worlds.
According to Richardson, a Métis person’s sense of self is composed of reinforcing cultural stories and swallowing the negative ones that had a lasting impact on identity. Richardson says Métis people can activate strategic responses for coping with life challenges, complex identity issues, racism and the difficulties they face.
According to Richardson, some of the strategies of self-preservation involve spending time in Métis settings, sharing stories, developing a Métis-centred analysis of life situations, and being with others who understand Métis experiences.
Métis people were able to preserve their identity by sticking to their own in isolated communities. Today, many Métis peoples live in urban centres and no longer live intergenerationally in large extended families. According to Statistics Canada, only one third of Métis children have someone, usually a grandparent, to explain what it means to be Métis and that practice often takes place through storytelling.
It also created a problematic creation of an unhealthy sense of Métis identity in situations where cultural ancestry is attacked, hidden or denied. According to Richardson, many Métis have spent their lives searching for an acceptable identity.
According to Raven Sinclair in Identity Lost and Found: Lessons from the Sixties Scoop, like most children who copy their parents’ traits, Indigenous children taken in the Sixties Scoop struggled to mimic their non-Indigenous foster or adoptive family’s genetic characteristics. Sinclair says the roots of these problems didn’t emerge until later in life for most apprehended children, often when they learned about their birth family or heritage.
Sinclair, a professor of Social Work at the University of Regina, describes these experiences as creating “tremendous obstacles to the development of a strong and healthy sense of identity for the transracial adoptee.” She says feelings of not belonging in mainstream Canadian society or Indigenous society can also create barriers to reaching socio-economic equity.
Who Is Métis?
Many people have mixed Indgenous and non-Indigenous ancestry. This does not make them Métis. According to the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, what distinguishes Métis people from everyone else is that they associate themselves with a culture that is distinctly Métis. They are historically, legally, politically, linguistically and culturally different from other Indigenous Peoples. The Métis Nation is the first to have a distinct culture emerging from both Indigenous and European cultures.
When Section 35(2) of the Constitution Act 1982 passed, Canada officially swept Métis under the rug by defining them one of the three Indigenous Peoples alongside First Nations and Inuit. Métis quickly became a generic term for any mixed First Nations, Inuit and European ancestry officially muddling the generic waters of who is Métis.
According to “Radically “Indian”, Legally “White”: The Canadian State’s Struggles to Categorize the Métis, 1850-1900” by Jennifer Hayter, Métis identity became hard to identify and created opportunities for non-Métis people to self-proclaim themselves as Métis. As a result, the Métis Nation has been in countless legal battles with those groups whose ties are illegitimate. According to Adam Gaudry in Commuting with the Dead: The “New Métis,” Identity Appropriation, and the Displacement of Living Métis Culture, the increase in the number of people self-identifying as Métis displaces living Métis culture.
The “New Métis” made my experience identifying as Métis, as the granddaughter of a Sixties Scoop survivor, harder. Growing up blonde and blue-eyed, without ties to Métis culture, nor my Métis grandmother (Schwartz’s older sister) to guide me, left me feeling like there wasn’t room for people like me in the Métis Nation.
Not having Métis language, culture or traditions embedded in my lifetime as a result of the Sixties Scoop made me feel like I was no better than the folk bringing up their illegitimate Métis ties at the dinner table. It wasn’t until I realized how precarious the Métis Nation was, and the sacrifices my family was forced to take to keep Métis identity alive, when those barriers felt much smaller.
Where Are We Today?
The process of ripping children from their families and placing them with non-Indigenous families is now known as the Sixties Scoop. Despite its name, the Sixties Scoop lasted from 1951 to 1980. Its impact stole language, culture and identity from survivors and robbed them of the opportunity to pass these things on to their children.
In 2017, the Canadian government announced the Sixties Scoop Settlement in acknowledgement of its cultural genocide. But, only for Inuit and Indigenous people with status. Métis and non-status, who shared the same experience, still cannot apply.
“I am disappointed that the federal government didn’t ask us or consult us about this whole process and let us know it was happening,” said Métis National Council president Clement Chartier in 2017.
As of 2021, all Métis survivors are held up in legal limbo – preventing all Métis people from participating in the Sixties Scoop Settlement. This is a result of Métis Sixties Scoop survivors being left out of the National Settlement Agreement due to a “lack of records available” that identifies who they were and where they came from. This statement is absurd because the Provincial and Federal governments had no difficulty identifying Métis children during the Sixties Scoop.
Where Do We Go from Here?
“I could cry thinking about it, Karlee,” says Schwartz on the other side of a zoom call. “Your grandmother Donna [Schwartz older sister] would be just so proud of you.”
My voice trembled as I tried to maintain pose during our interview. My grandmother suffered from depression, and died when my mom was only six-years-old. Learning about the Métis Nation and the Sixties Scoop has given me the opportunity to understand her more than before. It’s also left me with more questions I wish I could ask her.
Becoming a mother at 19 sent Schwartz on a path towards reconciliation. Her journey involves honouring relatives and restoring lost wisdom and culture in a contemporary way.
“Connecting with my Métis and Indigenous identity gave me a way of living,” said Schwartz.
In 2020, her grand-daughter Frances named after Schwartz’s mother was born.
Note from Deborah Schwartz:
“I was one of the lucky ones. I very much loved by my foster parents. They provided a good stable home and encouraged me to thrive. But like virtually all Canadians, they did not know the truth about what happened to Indigenous people and did not understand why my mother suffered or why she couldn’t take care of me. They were not equipped to help me know my Métis culture or connect me with my Métis relatives.”
She says this is why the concepts of belonging and identity have been lifelong themes in her personal and professional life time.
“I absolutely believe that when we connect with our people and our Culture, we flourish. There is a saying that “culture heals.” Our teachings are powerful. I have learned to love myself, my family and all people because of my Indigenous teachings.”