Native Village Youth and Education News

April 1, 2009 Issue 196 Volume 3

Nation of lost souls
by Linda Diebel
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 suicide.

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 homes.

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 Canadian churches.

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 disappear."

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 grocery store:

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 dead.

"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 burn.

"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 clothes.

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 family."

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 culture?"

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 reserves.

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 disconnect."

For many aboriginal families, the lawsuit represents closure.

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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