Nation of lost souls
Condensed by Native Village
Timmons, Ontario: The last time Marcia Martel saw
her mother at home, it was late summer and she was a chubby
little Indian kid of 4. She doesn't remember much because
she was crying and clutching the tall grass as strange
people pulled her away. She was scared of the police and
didn't understand why she was being taken from Beaverhouse
First Nation on Lake Misema in northeastern Ontario.
Forced into a waiting boat, she sat down. She'd been taught
"little children rules" for the water. She fixed her gaze on
her mother standing alone against the house until the image
was only a speck and then, nothing.
She couldn't stop crying. She felt so worthless, she says,
"I knew God Himself didn't want me."
Martel lived in foster homes until being adopted at 9. She
thought her family didn't want her. "I felt like an
(abandoned) puppy," she said.
Her adoptive mother told her to eat off the floor like the
"savage" she was. She rubbed Martel raw to wash off her
"dirty" brown colour. Martel battled thoughts of
Martel, now 45, has joined a $2,000,000,000 class-action
lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada over
Ontario's treatment of thousands of aboriginal children from
1965 to 1985. The claim alleges the federal government
committed "cultural genocide" by delegating aboriginal child
welfare services to Ontario. As a result, children (there
are no precise numbers) were stripped of their aboriginal
identity by being placed in non-native foster/adoptive
For over 150 years, a "kill the Indian in the child"
reigned in Canada. Tens of thousands of Native children were
carted off to residential schools under the auspices of
And it's not over, far from it.
The removal of aboriginal children from their communities
dragged on with the "Sixties Scoop," named for the
practice of taking newborns from their mothers on B.C.
reserves. It continues today.
In 2007, 8,300 First Nations children from Canadian reserves
were placed in national care. That's more than 5% of all kids living on reserves. It's also 8 times the
proportion of children in the general population.
"We are still struggling with (child welfare) workers who
come into our communities and take our children without
consultation," says Arthur Moore, chief of the Constance
Lake First Nation, himself a church school survivor. "They
have too much power and think we're not capable of looking
after our own children."
Adds Chief Keeter Corston, of the Chapleau Cree First
Nation: "Marcia's story isn't an isolated incident. They
didn't think of her as a person. It's genocide in terms of
breaking down a people morally and hoping they will just
Recently, Martel told her story to chiefs, welfare workers
and educators in a Timmins
conference room. Marcia fought back tears and spoke
slowly in a flat monotone, as if describing a trip to the
She wasn't alone in the boat that day. Authorities also took
her sister, Doris Lynn, about 6, keeping them together until
Marcia went to another foster home. She wrongly believed her
sister wanted her gone. (Five other siblings were left with
their family in Beaverhouse.)
Martel thought her mother didn't want her either,
discovering only years later it wasn't true. She describes a
happy early childhood and never found out why she was taken.
But her mother, when in her late 70s, said she was afraid if
she had fought for her children, police would have shot her
"That's a normal reaction. Indian people are trained to
listen to authority," says Corston. "You're not a real
person and only a real person can question authority."
Always, Martel wanted to go home. Instead, she bounced
around foster homes suffering physical and emotional abuse.
She once ran away and told her story to a police officer but
he apparently replied: "Aw, it can't be that bad."
By 9 when she was adopted, she'd lost her Algonquin language
and felt she belonged nowhere. Suicide wasn't an option
because: "God doesn't like it if you kill yourself."
She liked school but later saw a children's aid file
describing her as "slow" and not likely to progress beyond
the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. Authorities apparently
told her family she was mentally handicapped.
Over her protests, an Ontario family with four children
adopted her. She says her adoptive father was kindly, if
distant. When he died some 15 years ago, he left her a small
inheritance. Her adoptive mother, she claims, was cruel.
Martel had been carting around a beloved stuffed tiger. One
day, her adoptive mother told her to bring Tigger outside,
where she'd lit a bonfire. The woman apparently claimed
Tigger was full of bugs – Indian bugs – and made her thrown
him into the fire. She says she was forced to watch him
"Your people loved you but they didn't know how to look
after you," the woman said, as she incessantly went about
her nightly scrubbings. In her adoptive father's absence,
Martel alleges: "I got beat until I was black and blue with
everything – spoons, hangers, the vacuum cleaner tubing. ...
But she never touched my face."
When the couple divorced, she stayed with her adoptive
father. Then, the worst. "Okay, um ... I would have been in
Grade 9, I think ... I was 16 and, uh ... I got pregnant" by
an unnamed boy. Martel went to live with her adoptive mother
in Los Angeles, then moved with her to Texas. The woman
wanted to keep the baby.
"I would not allow that. I knew enough about human beings
that if you know bad stuff is happening and you're not able
to protect yourself, there's no possible way you can protect
a baby," says Martel. " So, I, uh ... it was probably one of
the hardest things I've ever done ... I gave him up."
Pause. She's sobbing quietly. "He was a beautiful boy." A
nurse let her hold him briefly after birth and, "I never saw
him after that."
She has one photo. "Nobody in my family ever saw him ... not
even my Granny and my Granny loved me."
A few months later, her adoptive mother took her to the
Houston airport, handed her a ticket to North Bay, Ont., and
put her on a plane. She was 17. All she had was the suitcase
she'd arrived with at age 9, filled with little girl's
An older sister met her in North Bay. Martel doesn't know
how her adoptive mother found her sister Nancy; by then,
they were alienated and she's forever lost other precious
family connections. She tried to regain her Indian status
and eventually won it back after her son, now 17, was born,
"I realized survival wasn't good enough. My life had to be
about happiness too."
TORONTO lawyer Jeffery Wilson is handling the case with
colleague Morris Cooper. He said it wasn't until 1985
Ottawa recognized that Indian and native people should be
provided "in a manner that recognizes their culture,
heritage and traditions and the concept of the extended
However, Wilson argues: "That change (in provincial law)
doesn't correct what happened before. ... It's shameful. You
think you can raise a child and that it's in the best
interest of the child to dispense with that child's
He argues the federal government was "improper and unlawful"
in handing responsibility for child services.
There's a buzz around the lawsuit. Aboriginal leaders see it
as potentially precedent-setting and a step toward their
goal of ensuring autonomous child care services.
But Vicky Hardisty, executive director of Kunuwanimano Child
and Family Services, argues aboriginal children are often
taken independently without consulting community leaders.
It's such a mess in the north, five Treaty 9 chiefs have
banned provincial child welfare officers from their
Anne Machowski-Smith, spokesperson for Ontario children and
youth services, says the law requires local agencies
to consult with bands or native communities in the placement
of aboriginal children. "We believe that, wherever
possible, aboriginal children in need of protection, should
be cared for in ways that recognize their culture and
traditions," she said.
Hardisty counters: "They always say that and we always tell
them it's not happening. We ask them to provide us with
proof of this compliance, but they don't. ... There's a huge
For many aboriginal families, the lawsuit represents
Recently, when a Toronto Star article about Martel
circulated, writer Linda Diebel said her phone began ringing
with calls for help. Aboriginal adults in their 40s, 50s and
older describe a nation of lost souls – Ontario's own
"disappeared" – as they search for brothers, sisters and
children who vanished into provincial care.
"Can you help me?" asks James Wesley from the northern
Mountbatten First Nation. He's looking for his sister, Emma
Lulu, and brother, Raymond Randy. "They kept moving me from
home to home ... I pretty much got lost myself."
Nobody places all the blame on Ontario's child welfare
system. Robert Commanda, 49, says CAS officials took him
after his mother ran off and left her five little boys
alone. The oldest was 5 and kept his siblings, including
Robert, 2, alive on chips and pop.
"She left us to die," says Commanda. "I sort of haven't come
to terms with that. ... I'm a mess but I'm working on it. I
just don't feel I belong anywhere."
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