“My culture is my identity” – a conversation with Colleen Cardinal about Indigenous adoptees in Canada

“My culture is my identity,” says Colleen Cardinal. “This is what has been denied to me.”

The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has helped shine a light on the horrendous and lasting harm done by tearing Indigenous children from their families, their communities, their languages and their cultures.

Critically, as the TRC report itself highlights, the uprooting of Indigenous children was not limited to the Residential School Programme.

For decades, Indigenous families having difficulties providing adequate care for their children – whether as a result of impoverishment, the intergenerational consequences of abuses suffered in residential schools, or other social and economic stresses –  have been denied the help they need.

Today, as a case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has highlighted, persistent federal underfunding of on reserve child and family services has made the removal of children all too common,  because the responsible agencies can’t afford to intervene in other ways.

This follows an earlier phenomenon known as the “60’s scoop” in which Indigenous children, removed from their families and communities by social service agencies, were offered up for adoption on the belief they would be inherently better off raised by non-Indigenous families.

Colleen Cardinal is a Plains Cree woman from Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Alberta who currently resides in Algonquin Territory. Colleen is an Indigenous adoptee of the 60’s scoop, the daughter of a residential school survivor and has had two women murdered in her family.

Amnesty International first worked with Colleen through her involvement with Families of Sisters in Spirit (FSIS) based in Ottawa. Colleen speaks publicly and candidly about murdered and missing Indigenous women and the impacts of the 60’s scoop, drawing critical connections between genocidal colonial policies and her lived experiences and those of women in her family.

Colleen believes that sharing her story is an important part of her healing journey in addition to raising awareness and building solidarity and understanding within Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Colleen is also a volunteer organizer for the Indigenous Adoptee Gathering 2014 and the upcoming IAG 2015. She is currently working on a video documentary called “A Hidden Generation.”

What’s your best sense of the number of Aboriginal people like you who have grown up away from their biological families, away from their cultures, and away from their traditional territories because of the 60’s scoop?

Right now, we don’t have accurate numbers. Myself, I know at least 200 people that I’ve met through Facebook and in person. They estimate that there are up to 20,000 but we don’t know yet because there hasn’t been enough research. We know that there were a lot of adoptees that have been taken overseas and to the States, so it’s really hard to tell.

As you said, it’s such a common experience that you end up meeting so many people where this has been part of their lives. You hear of people who grew up in wonderful, supportive families and you hear about people who had a very different experience with their adopted families. What do you think is the common ground?

The common experience, whether they had a good home or a bad home, is loss of culture and a crisis of identity. Not knowing who they were or where they belonged and feeling like they didn’t fit in anywhere.

And even once they find out where they came from, finding their culture is another challenge.

I didn’t find out until I was 28 that I was Plains Cree. Even then I didn’t know what that really meant. I thought all Indians were the same, because nobody had ever given me any context. 

It’s hard to find that knowledge in an urban environment. There’s no easy fix of just saying, go back to your reserve. We don’t know anybody there. It would be a huge culture shock. And things like knowing what elders to talk to, how to navigate the society, we don’t necessarily have that knowledge.

I know now that in our teachings everything about being Indigenous is about being connected to the land. Our language comes from the land. Once you start regaining that, you realize how immense the loss was. And how it impacts our children and our children’s children if we don’t reconnect to the land and our culture.

My culture is my identity. That’s what’s been denied to me.

You’ve talked before about the 60’s scope as part of a continuation of what began with the residential schools. Can you talk a little bit now about that connection.

I think what they have in common is the loss of culture – the removal of culture – and it being a deliberate effort to assimilate Indigenous people into the mainstream society.

The difference with residential schools is that children were all brought to specific physical locations whereas with the adoptees, it was all spread out and behind closed doors. It kind of went undetected.

There was a lot of trauma from that. There was physical and sexual abuse. And even where that didn’t happen, there was still displacement from territory and disconnection from that familiarity of knowing who you are and where you come from.

And if you’re not connected with the land, it has no meaning to you. Which is why, I think, the land is in so much trouble right now. We’re not connected to land any more. It’s not a living thing to us. It’s just something that can be used to extract resources. And that to me is the larger issue, that deliberate attempt to disconnect us from the land so that we don’t care about it and we’re not invested in it.

You’ve talked about the incredible difficulty of reconnecting to culture and territory. What have been some of the things that have helped you in your own experience?

I didn’t find anything until I went back to college when I was 29. I had never seen culture, I had never done smudging and I didn’t know anything about sweat lodges. I didn’t even know that that was part of our identity. When I was first introduced to that it was through the Native Community Worker programme at Sault College that incorporated culture into the curriculum. That was my first eye-opener.

The difficulty in navigating that is figuring out where you fit in. For a long time I felt like I had to be a pow wow dancer or I had to drum. I had to be like this super-Indian to fit in. And then as you get older you realize, you know what, it’s not like that. Just seeking our truth and having a spiritual connection with the Creator and with the land is the most important thing.

The difficult part for myself is the internal message that I grew up with. I grew up in a non-Indigenous home. I grew up internalizing racism towards Indigenous people. I also grew up with the values of non-Indigenous people where, you know, consumerism and all the things you have do to fit in with the mainstream.

Undoing all that is part of the process of reclaiming my culture. That was hard for me. It’s a big process of unlearning and relearning and it takes time. And not only do I have to do it, I have to help my children do it because they’re impacted by my adoption.

Now that you’re working with other adoptees as part of a larger movement, what are the kinds of supports that you’re able to extend to each other?

Oh my gosh. We have so many things in common.  We’re all learning how to do culture again. It’s very scary to go into ceremony and not know what to expect. My first experience with ceremony in Sault Ste-Marie, I was terrified. I didn’t want to make any mistakes. Doing that together with other people who are also learning, it’s really good. It’s a safe, gentle environment. And we’re aware of each other’s fear of it. And we’re aware of our hesitation to jump into it because we might have some resistance from our adoptive families.

Like, there’s this weird thing that we have with our adoptive families. I don’t know if I can explain it. There’s this loyalty that we have toward our non-Indigenous families. Even if we’ve experienced abuse, we feel like we’re lucky to have been raised in a good home and to have had all these amazing opportunities. This is what’s instilled in us. And if we speak out against what’s happened, or we try to relearn our culture, we fear they won’t like it. And they often don’t. They say, Why would you want to do that? Why you want to go back to that?

These are things we can vent about with each other. And try to support and listen to each other. We aren’t necessarily able to do anything about it, but just having each other to talk about it is important because it’s very difficult to understand for someone who hasn’t been through it.

Working together with other adoptees, you’re identifying changes that are needed for the future. What are some of the key things that you would like to see happen to support adoptees?

We have a gathering. This is our second one.  That’s a huge support for a lot of adoptees. They’re coming from all over the country to just be here together with other adoptees because that’s so important to just be with each other. But we raised that money ourselves. We have no funding because there is no funding.

We need funding for our healing, so that we can be well, so that we can have wellness in our families. A lot of us are dealing with mental health issues. We’re dealing with trauma. Addictions are huge. And there’s no support for that.
We have to explain to healthcare providers, even Indigenous health care providers, what the Sixties Scoop was and how it impacted us and how it has affected our lives. And there are no safe cultural spaces for us. We have to explain that we don’t fit in anywhere.

We need health care providers who understand how it’s impacted us and how that can be addressed through a health and wellness plan. I only ever met one doctor who really understood it with my having to explain about the Sixties Scoop and about historical trauma and having that doctor was a really thing for me.

I also think education among the mainstream Canadian population is also very badly needed. Because I think it will help undo some harm. We’re dealing with a lot of racism and stigma. A lot of Canadian think the residential school experience was a one time thing and it’s over now and we should just get over it.  They don’t understand that the Sixties Scoop is a continuation of what happened with the residential schools and that the number of our children in care now is a result of the residential schools and the 60’s  Scoop. Until we actually deal with what it was and why it happened, we can’t ever really address it.

I’m in a place now where I’m tired of talking about all the bad stuff. Some people are just starting to deal with the bad stuff. They’re in a different place in their healing. Me, I want to look at the larger picture. Instead of just talking about the abuses, I want to talk about the systemic issues and we all can do to make a difference, how can we help Canadians to understand how they’ve implicated in this. And what can they do to help undo the harm. That’s my goal.

Learn more