‘We found you in a catalogue of Native children’

On Colleen Cardinal’s adoption records it says her parents were Aboriginal and alcoholics.

(Colleen Cardinal, purple shirt, sits with the organizers of an Ottawa gathering Sept. 20-21 for Indigenous adoptees. Submitted photo)

Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
OTTAWA – On Colleen Cardinal’s adoption records it says her parents were Aboriginal and alcoholics.

It doesn’t say her mother was a residential school survivor.

That she suffered from the experience up until to her death in 1999.

“It was really focusing on they were alcoholics,” said Cardinal.

If you’re an Indigenous adoptee Cardinal’s story may sound familiar.

At a young age she and her sisters were taken from her parents in Edmonton.

They bounced around in foster homes until a non-Indigenous family adopted all three of them thousands of kilometres away in unknown Sault. Ste. Marie, Ont.

Feeling lucky to stick together they would soon find out how unlucky they were.

“It was pretty abusive. My sisters experienced the brunt of it because they were older,” said Cardinal. “We all ran away by the time we were 15. By the time I ran away my sisters were back out in Edmonton.”

Cardinal spoke to APTN National News about her life, but generally prefers to stay in the background.

Her one sister was murdered in 1990 and the other doesn’t like talking about what happened.

When Cardinal moved to Ottawa in 2011 she met other adoptees.

Together, they found strength.

Now, they’re looking to share it.

She’s one of the organizers of a gathering in Ottawa where Indigenous adoptees, foster kids and children of the Sixties Scoop are meeting Sept. 20-21 at the Richelieu-Vanier Community Centre.

“So many adoptees are just grateful to meet other adoptees. We don’t realize how much of a common experience we have,” said Cardinal. “We’re all struggling with the same stuff.”

The list of attendees to participate in the sharing circle is full at 80 people from all over Canada, including one from North Dakota.

While survivors look to share their story, many Indigenous youth are making their way through the same system.

According to one recent study, on any given day there are 1,000 kids in child welfare in British Columbia.

More than half of them are Indigenous kids.

And a hearing is taking place in Ottawa at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal looking into the reasons why thousands of Indigenous children are currently in state care and whether the federal government discriminates against First Nation children because of underfunding the organizations charged with their care.

The Harper government tried to have the case thrown out several times with no luck.

Last month, Tina Fontaine, 15, ran away from a foster home and was found dead, wrapped in plastic, in a Winnipeg river.

Her killer hasn’t been caught.

But the history of Indigenous children taken from their homes nearly as old as the country is by name.

For over 100 years, ending in the 1990s, the federal government ripped tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their parents and put them in state-funded, church-operated schools known as Indian Residential Schools.

Christianity was forced on the kids and they weren’t allowed to speak their language.

It’s estimated thousands of children died, many more were abused, both physically and sexually, nearly destroying generation after generation.

The government apologized in 2008 and has since been providing settlements to survivors.

The Sixties Scoop has also been well documented, as well.

From the 1960s to 1980s Indigenous children were taken from their homes and put in foster care. Some ended up in the United States. Many were put in the homes of middle class non-Indigenous families.

Two Sixties Scoop class-action lawsuits are currently before the courts in British Columbia and in Ontario.

Cardinal believes the gathering is the beginning of a movement.

“It will be as big as residential schools. There are thousands of people who experienced the same thing I did (as an adoptee),” she said.

When Cardinal ran away from her adoptive home she found her biological mother, still struggling.

“I was so anxious to meet my family, to know my family … just to be with them. I learned later, after my mother died, she went through residential schools,” she said.

She moved back to Sault Ste. Marie in 1998 with her chldren and tried in vain to reconnect with her adoptive mother (The abusive adoptive father was no longer in the picture.)

The woman wouldn’t talk about the abuse but Cardinal said she did learn one thing about how she and her sisters were found by a white family Ontario.

“She said ‘we found you in a catalogue of Native children,” said Cardinal. “Can you believe that?”

For more information on the gathering visit their website at indigenousadoptee.com.

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Investigative Reporter

Kenneth Jackson is an investigative reporter in Ottawa, Ont. with more than two decades in the business. He got his start in community newspapers before joining the Ottawa Sun in 2007 where he worked the police beat.

In 2011, Jackson joined APTN to break the Bruce Carson scandal that sparked three federal investigations into the former senior advisor to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Carson was later charged with fraud sparking a court battle all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The conviction was upheld and was based entirely on APTN’s investigation.

Jackson has focused, almost exclusively, on the child welfare system in Ontario over the last five years. The work has earned multiple awards, including the 2020 Michener Award.