National Indigenous History Month – Allyson Stevenson

June is National Indigenous History Month, an opportunity to honour the history, heritage, and diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada. In this post, we asked Allyson Stevenson, author of Intimate Integration: A History of the Sixties Scoop and the Colonization of Indigenous Kinship, a few questions about what Indigenous History Month means to her and included an excerpt from her book.

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For Indigenous History Month we are giving away a copy of Intimate Integration on Instagram. To enter, go to our Instagram and follow the steps to enter. The competition runs until June 13, 2021.


UTP: What does “Indigenous History Month” mean to you?

Allyson Stevenson: Indigenous History Month in an opportunity to highlight the scholarship of Indigenous historians, oral historians, community historians, and non-Indigenous historians who research Indigenous history. Unfortunately, for too long Indigenous history was denigrated and frequently left out of much of what we consider Canadian history. It provides a chance to tell stories with Indigenous histories front and center.

UTP: Do you plan to celebrate it?

AS: Yes, most definitely. It is a chance to share the works of my fellow historians and highlight the important stories many people have not been exposed to otherwise.

UTP: What resource(s) would you recommend to descendants of settlers who want to develop their understanding of the Indigenous experience in Canada?

AS: The most critical area for settler descendants to understand is the history of treaty making in Canada. The treaty relationship was intended to be based on mutual respect, as Indigenous peoples negotiated the conditions for living alongside Canadians. In most regions of Canada, the treaties form the foundation of the relationship between settlers and First Nations people. Resources that I recommend for Canadians to start this journey of discovery is the work of Sheldon Krazowski, No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous regarding the oral agreements of the treaties. Other important Indigenous perspectives on the treaties include The Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream is that Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations, edited by Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt of Saskatchewan, and The True Spirit and Intent of Treaty 7 by the Treaty 7 Elders, Sarah Carter, Walter Hildebrandt, and Dorothy First Rider.

Another significant contribution that expands our understanding of treaty making in Canada is J.R. Miller’s Compact, Contract and Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada. Another book, specific to Saskatchewan is Bounty and Benevolence, and Compact, Contract Covenant: A History of Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada by J.R. Miller, Frank Tough, and Arthur Ray. Documentaries have also been an important medium for exploring Indigenous histories, and I suggest The Pass SystemWe Were Children, and nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up by Tasha Hubbard. To understand in greater depth the legal foundation of Canada in Indigenous law and pathways for reconciliation, I recommend reading any and all works by Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows.

This year, it has been made apparent that Canadians remain largely unaware of the extent of the residential school atrocity, even though scholars have been publishing accessible histories on it for decades. The TRC’s final report in 2015 provided an authoritative account of the origins, operation, and long-term impacts of the RSS and there are also many stories told by survivors in books and documentaries. So, there is lots of catching up settlers need to do to understand Indigenous experiences in Canada. But first, they must understand their relationship to Indigenous peoples, and this begins with learning about the treaties negotiated on their behalf by the Canadian government. One very significant and unique facet of Canadian history is the presence of a post-contact Indigenous people, the Métis. The Métis people do not have a treaty relationship with the Crown but are recognized as one of Canada’s three Aboriginal people in the Constitution Act, 1982. Canadians should learn why we have followed a different path and should read, Jean Teillet’s The North-West is Our Mother: The Story of Louis Riel’s People, the Métis Nation to get a detailed overview of Métis history in Canada. A recently published collection by Nathalie Kermoal and Chris Andersen, Daniels v. Canada: In and Beyond the Courts provides readers with a contemporary analysis of the inclusion of the Metis as “Indians” under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act of 1867 after the 2016 Supreme Court’s ‘Daniels’ decision. Indigenous history is being made today.

Finally, the recent ‘discovery’ of 215 little graves at Kamloops Indian Residential school has made blindingly clear of the history of the IRS system and its impact on Indigenous peoples. Such long-term impacts of colonialism are still being experienced by Indigenous communities, especially in the crisis of the child welfare system which many say is an extension of the IRSs.

*Thanks to Cheryl Troupe and Winona Wheeler who commented on this post and provided helpful suggestions.


Excerpt from Chapter 6: Child Welfare as System and Lived Experience

Adopting a Solution to the Indian problem

The creation of the Adopt Indian and Métis program in April 1967 in Saskatchewan shared many of the same goals of the Indian Adoption Project. Adopt Indian and Métis sought to secure the permanency of adoption for Indian and Métis children relinquished or removed from reserves and reduce pressure on foster homes by enlisting “normal” Saskatchewan families to adopt Indian and Métis children. The impetus behind the development of a public relations campaign to reconfigure Indigenous children as potential family members was the increasing numbers of Indigenous children being taken into care by the Department of Social Services, for neglect or relinquishment by biological family members. Indigenous integration through the provincial child welfare system was failing to live up to its promise, hampered by the unwillingness of the non-Indigenous public to assume its role as potential foster parents or adopters. Selling the idea that the public could provide a solution to the “racial problem” paradoxically relied on denying the relevance of race of Indian children and reassuring non- Indigenous potential parents that the children were in every way the same as non-Indigenous children.

The Adopt Indian and Métis program brought the needs of Indigenous children to the attention of the viewing public in Saskatchewan, erasing their ties to their Indigenous heritage, and offering the public the opportunity to imagine themselves as parents forging a new colourblind society. The social construction of childhood as a central responsibility of the state and middle-class population first became widespread in the early nineteenth century with the child rescue movement in Britain. The Adopt Indian and Métis program shared a common language and goal with the nineteenth-century child rescue movement in the creation of specific kinds of subjects and bodies to be fundamental in the making of the body politic. The “child as future citizen” was the core tenet of child rescue discourse. In the nineteenth century, children were transformed from private parental property to future citizens, and hence the responsibility of the nation.

Through the use of books, periodicals, melodrama, and children’s literature, the public became aware of its responsibility to assist in rearing poor children and youth. Like the Adopt Indian and Métis ads, often parents were absent from the stories. The primary objective of the publications was first to identify the problem to the public, then attract the financial support of the public for the orphan rescue institutions. As Shurlee Swain points out, “The neglected child, however romanticized, had to be made real if they were going to attract financial support.” From its beginnings, child rescue discourse lacked any call for social justice or a roadmap for eliminating the causes of poverty and neglect of children. Like the Adopt Indian and Métis ads, early child rescue literature erased children from their families and histories. According to Swain, “Through the publications, children were constituted as victims, not of an unjust society but of the failing of their parents or other caregivers, often articulated in the old evangelical discourses of morality and sin.” The images and discourses of victimized children moved working- and middle-class families to support children’s homes and eventually transracial adoption programs such as Adopt Indian and Métis.

With the election of Liberal leader Ross Thatcher in 1964, the CCF twenty-year rule came to an end. Declaring the province “open for business,” Thatcher gave high priority to resolving “the Indian problem.” The expression of this Euro-Canadian intellectual construction has shifted, depending on time and place, but in mid-1960s Saskatchewan the “Indian problem” signified the extreme poverty and growing welfare dependence of Indian and Métis people. In April 1965 the Liberal government created the Indian and Métis Branch in the Department of Natural Resources, the only one of its kind in Canada. The branch was intended to “accelerate the process by which these people become an integral part of Canadian society.” The primary purpose of the department was to find employment for Indian and Métis people. In 1967, 89.1 per cent of residents living on reserves in southern Saskatchewan derived their income from welfare, compared with a 4.5 per cent rate for the non-Indian population of the same area. Thatcher differed from the previous CCF social democratic government he had replaced; he believed in an individualist strategy, helping individual Indians and Métis take their place in the work world through individual job placements.

In crafting Indian and Métis policies, Thatcher was deliberately indifferent to the legal and cultural differences between Indian and Métis people. Not surprisingly, both Indian and Métis political organizations objected to the direction he took. Thatcher’s emphasis on individual job placements came out of his right-of-centre political philosophy, his opposition to welfare programs, and his desire to see measurable results. According to historian Jim Pitsula, “His vision of the future was that Indians would be economically integrated and culturally assimilated into the dominant society.” Thus he shared a common outlook with the federal IAB in bypassing problematic legal and cultural issues and ensuring that individuals assumed their economic and social responsibilities.

From the perspective of the newly elected government, the state of child welfare services for Indian and Métis children appeared troubling and destined to escalate. In a confidential planning document, the Department of Social Welfare outlined the trajectory of child welfare responsibilities if the province continued its course of providing services to Indian and Métis children without the assistance of the federal government or working-class and middle-class Saskatchewan families. While Indian and Métis people made up a small percentage of the overall provincial population (7.5 per cent) in child welfare, 41.9 per cent of all children in 1969 in foster homes were Indian or Métis, and “additionally, an increasing number of Indian unmarried mothers avail themselves of provincial adoption services and leave their children.” Lack of child welfare services on reserves meant that the province apprehended children only in cases of the most serious neglect if a child’s life was in danger, and the only other service available was adoption on and off reserves. In most cases, unmarried mothers were told to return to their reserves. Planners suggested the need to negotiate for immediate extensions of provincial child care services to reserves or to call for changes to child welfare legislation so that IAB staff could legally take action in neglect cases. The piloting of the Adopt Indian and Métis program in 1967 called for little financial investment and did not require extensive negotiation between federal and provincial counterparts or a radically new approach to resolving underlying economic and social factors contributing to increasing numbers of Indigenous children coming into provincial care. In keeping with the individualist ethos of the Thatcher government, individual children adopted by individual families provided an important method by which to reduce the financial responsibility of the government and provide the nurturing and permanence that was idealized by social work professionals as in the “best interest of the child.”

The first step in creating the Adopt Indian and Métis project was surveying the Indian and Métis children who were permanent wards. In April 1966 adoption consultant Alice Dales, who had been responsible for the Green Lake experiment, conducted a region-by-region survey. She reviewed 373 files to determine which Indian and Métis children were legally free for adoption. The stated purpose of the project was to determine if a special approach to the problem of Indian and Métis over-representation would increase adoptions, so fewer children would remain in foster homes. Through the creation of a specialized advertising campaign and immediate follow-up by a unit of workers, Frank Dornstauder, the project architect, hoped the program would encourage white families to adopt Indian children. This plan fundamentally altered the understanding of racial boundaries that the federal government had assiduously erected over the past century in western Canada through its Indian and Métis policies of segregation.

Dornstauder claimed to be inspired by the Montreal Open Door Society, which he was familiarized with while studying for his master’s degree in social work at McGill. The society had been created in 1959 by three families to assist adoption professionals who sought to raise the prominence of interracial adoption of part-Black children through education and support. Dornstauder acknowledged that Saskatchewan differed profoundly from Montreal – first, that racial attitudes in Saskatchewan toward Indian and Métis were “more negative than in Montreal,” and second, that the vast rural landscape required an approach that was different from Montreal’s. The project was limited initially to a small geographical area, and after measuring the results, the study would allow administrators to see if the ad campaign could be effective throughout Saskatchewan. Not only would children benefit from the permanency of an adoptive family, there were also pragmatic reasons to explore adoption. As Dornstauder mused, “If it is successful, it will also be a major saving in maintenance costs for children.”

The federal Ministry of Health and Welfare approved the Adopt Indian and Métis pilot budget for 1967–8, providing funds to run the program for two years. Dornstauder hoped that by demonstrating the universal appeal of children and targeting one specific geographical area with “consistent, continuous, specific publicity,” people would ultimately see the appeal of including Indigenous children as “family.” His hope was that “AIM will try to provide the spark and the initiative so that people will investigate the possibility.” The southeastern portion of the province targeted by the AIM campaign coincidentally also had the highest concentration of Indian reserves, and although not mentioned by officials, the greatest Indigenous poverty. It consistently ranked last in the Hawthorn Report’s survey of socio economic conditions across Canada. The per capita income of residents in 1966 was $55 per year, significantly less than the highest paid reserve, Skidegate in British Columbia, at $1252. James Smith Band, one of Saskatchewan’s richest agricultural areas, had an average per capita income of $126. The survey also noted that all households were receiving welfare; at Piapot that number was 86.5 per cent.

Television was an ideal medium to spread the message through the rural province to a diverse swath of the viewing population. In the televised advertisements for the Adopt Indian and Métis project, playful and innocent First Nations and Métis children appeared detached from their history, communities, and indigeneity. By doing so, the advertising company that created the ads enabled white families to imagine the children as family members and perceive themselves as providing a solution to the poverty and marginalization of Indigenous peoples. Ads for the Adopt Indian and Métis project depicted Indigenous children as “normal” everyday children that communicated the colourblind nature of the project. One thirty-three-second Adopt Indian and Métis commercial showed white parents, and the occasional Indigenous parent, providing care to First Nations and Métis youngsters. Children appeared playing catch, going fishing, practising piano, drinking milk, going to school, being comforted when upset, and being tucked into bed by loving parents. Indigenous children, all between the ages of five and ten, engaged in very typical actions that any Canadian child might. In one scene, a young boy about aged ten appeared to be a fishing companion to a single older man. These children, not infants, represented Indigenous transracial adoption as an opportunity for citizens, moved by the ads, to adopt. The commercial, until then accompanied only by a song, instructed viewers that they could “give a new life to a child in your home. Contact AIM.”


Click here to find out more about Intimate Integration: A History of the Sixties Scoop and the Colonization of Indigenous Kinship.


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