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First Nations seek closure for Sixties Scoop with class-action suit

Marcia Brown Martel is the representative plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, claiming a loss of cultural identity.

Diana Mehta/The Canadian Press

Indigenous people who say they lost their cultural identity when they were removed as children from their homes on Ontario reserves to be placed with non-aboriginal families are urging the federal government to negotiate a settlement in a long-standing case that will go before a judge later this year.

The class-action suit seeks redress for what the plaintiffs say was the government's failure to ensure that, after being taken from their communities by child-welfare authorities – a wide-scale practice known as the Sixties Scoop – the children were allowed to maintain their traditions and customs and to obtain the benefits that flow to aboriginal people, such as free postsecondary tuition.

The case was launched in 2009 on behalf of Marcia Brown Martel, now the Chief of the Beaverhouse First Nation, who was taken from her community north of North Bay in 1967 when she was four years old and, after years in foster care, was adopted by a white family in central Ontario.

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Her lawyers estimate there are about 16,000 other indigenous people in the province who were removed from their homes in similar fashion between 1965 and 1984 – the period covered by the claim.

After seven years of delays, mostly as a result of appeals by Ottawa, the two sides will have a chance to present their arguments at a summary judgment hearing in the Ontario Superior Court on Aug. 23. Television ads will soon air on both the CBC and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network to advise other indigenous people who were part of the Sixties Scoop that they must opt out by April 22 if they don't want to be part of the case.

The claim seeks combined damages of $100,000 for each person that is part of the class action. Similar suits have been launched in other provinces where the plaintiffs are waiting for the outcome of the Ontario case.

"Canada, under the previous [Conservative] government, wouldn't sit down to talk with us. They were instructed 'no dialogue, no mediation, nothing,'" Jeffrey Wilson, the lawyer for Ms. Brown Martel and the other class-action claimants, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Mr. Wilson said he had hoped that the Liberal victory in the October election would lead to negotiations toward an out-of-court settlement. But, so far, he said, the new government has shown no interest in talks.

The Indigenous Affairs Department suggested in an e-mail that the impasse may be about to end.

"The government of Canada continues to prefer negotiation versus litigation," a department spokeswoman said. She pointed out that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is examining all litigation on a case-by-case basis to ensure that it does not infringe upon aboriginal rights.

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"It would be premature, however, to speculate on how that review may impact claims concerning the Sixties Scoop," she said.

While litigants in some other provinces argue that the government should not have removed aboriginal children from their communities and placed them with non-aboriginal families, the Ontario case does not.

Instead, Mr. Wilson said, it asks "was there a duty, after they were placed, to provide access to them, to give them information to enable them to have access to their culture, if they so chose."

Ms. Brown Martel, who was abandoned by her adopted family at the age of 17 and returned to a community to which she no longer had ties, said she grew up believing she was wanted by no one. "I was suicidal when I was 7 and I stayed that way until my early 20s," she said.

The suit, Ms. Brown Martel said, was brought to ensure "that there would come a time in Canada when it would be against the law to remove children from their communities, forcing them to lose their language, their cultural identity, their traditions."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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