Lessons learned from the past - graduate student explores Aboriginal adoption in Saskatchewan

With the Saskatchewan child welfare system at a major crossroads, a University of Saskatchewan graduate student says lessons can be learned from Saskatchewan’s unique history of Aboriginal adoption.

By Colleen MacPherson
In the 1960s and 70s, the Saskatchewan government saw a surging number of Aboriginal children coming into group homes and foster care. The government wished to move these children into permanent homes and so they created Canada's only ethnically targeted adoption program – Adopt Indian and Métis (AIM).

AIM advertised the need for adoptive parents and fast-tracked the adoption of Aboriginal children into non-Aboriginal homes. Allyson Stevenson, a Métis PhD history student, says the program aimed to help children, but suffered from a fundamental flaw.

"While the intentions behind AIM were certainly admirable – to find permanent loving homes for children who were permanent wards of the ministry – Aboriginal people as a whole did not participate in the program's creation," she said. "No matter how noble or benign, policies created to help Aboriginal people must involve Aboriginal people in their creation, deployment and administration."

The confidential nature of adoption at the time meant that all ties to a child's birth parents and their culture were cut. The resulting loss of culture is a continuing concern for Aboriginal people today.

Stevenson also found that AIM focused efforts on getting children adopted instead of addressing the social and economic problems that cause children to be removed.

"A lot of children were coming into care not because their parents were neglecting them, but because the physical state of their home was deemed unsafe. It became a vicious cycle of lack of attention to basic services on reserve that resulted in children being removed," she said.

While AIM is decades in the past, current statistics show that the situation of Aboriginal children in state care has only worsened. First Nations and Métis make up 25 per cent of the provincial child population but account for 80 per cent of the children in foster care and group homes.

The provincial government is currently addressing this concern following a comprehensive review of the child welfare system in 2010. The four-person review panel included members from both the Métis and First Nations communities. Following the review, the government signed Letters of Understanding with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Métis Nation – Saskatchewan pledging to work together for the renewal of the child welfare system.

Stevenson's research included searching through government archives, watching TV advertisements, and conducting several interviews with seven people involved with AIM.

She says further consultation with adopted children and elders of Métis and First Nations communities is needed to create culturally relevant care for the children the system is meant to serve. Her work underscores that considering the past is an important part of creating effective policies today.

"Just because AIM was a poorly conceived program does not mean transracial adoption needs to be abandoned completely," she said.

"Consulting recent research by adoptees on their experiences, involving elders, and understanding Aboriginal adoption practices can lead to policies that provide children with the family and cultural connections they all deserve."

Her supervisor, history professor Valerie Korinek, stresses the importance of interviewing the people involved.

"It allows families to speak about their experiences, enabling First Nations and Métis voices to be recorded in the historical record," she said.

Stevenson's research was funded by the Saskatchewan government's Queen Elizabeth Centennial Aboriginal Scholarship, the U of S department of history, and the Gabriel Dumont Institute.

Thomas Onion is a graduate student intern with the U of S Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK) Program