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  • Writer's pictureJanice Selbie

Christianity, Residential Schooling, and the 60s Scoop

In 1974, my "new sister" arrived at our front door. What I saw was a small First Nations girl with pigtails and a blue suitcase. I was 4 years old and the youngest of three siblings; my older brothers were ages 7 and 9 when our new sister arrived. I felt excited and guessed this must just be how new siblings come to be. I was happy to have a sister and hoped that we would become good friends.

In reality, she had been forcibly removed from her home on a First Nations reserve a few hours away. She had lived in several foster homes prior to arriving with us, some of which had been decidedly unsafe. My parents were white evangelical Christians - exactly the type of home in which the Canadian government wanted to place Indigenous children. I was told that we "rescued her from a terrible situation," and that she was lucky to have us. She quickly settled into our rhythm of our family life, assuming our last name and becoming the only First Nations student at both our public elementary school and, of course, our church. I felt a little jealous of all the attention she received and the fact that she got "the big bedroom," but otherwise things went fairly smoothly. I never asked questions about her life prior to becoming a member of our family.

Our parents made it clear that they had no intention of passing her on to another foster home; her home was now with us. She received the same love and the same discipline as my siblings and I received. In 1975, when our father "heard the call" to ministry, she came along with us as we packed our belongings into the family station wagon and pulled the tent trailer behind us all the way from British Columbia to New York state, so he could attend Elim Bible Institute. My sister was, of course, asked to don the genuine Indian headdress in our tiny town parade on Thanksgiving, even though it was much too large for her.

My parents were lauded for their love and generosity for grafting her into our family. Years later, I learned that the only reason they did not adopt my sister was that she would have lost her Indian Status at the time, though such is no longer the case in Canada. Mind you, SHE STILL HAD A FAMILY, though they had been deemed unfit by (white) government officers at some point.

When she got to be about 14 years old, my sister started to rebel. This was very confusing for me, as I could not understand why she suddenly seemed to hate us. She began running away, trying to hitch hike back to her original family on the reserve. All I knew was that it was tearing my dear mother, and our whole family, apart. I don't recall any discussions about her family of origin; during her time with us, she was expected, as many adoptees are, to utterly forget about her family of origin and only show gratitude for us taking her in and inflicting our values and religion and culture upon her.

Eventually, my father gave her an ultimatum: Abide by our (white, Christian) family rules or go live in a Christian group home. She chose the latter, and our family was splintered. It was a hard time in our home: My mother cried a lot, my father seemed perpetually angry, and I was once again without a sister. As is usual for an adolescent, my limited world view precluded me seeing what may have been driving her "selfish" behavior. I only saw my own pain; I could not see hers.

I did not know the pain of being ripped away from the only family I had ever known and being forced to live with strangers who were, at times, neglectful and unkind. I did not know the pain of losing my community and all things dear to me, of being forced to adapt and accept strangers and their beliefs, forced into a different culture with no support. I did not know that she was the first member of her family not sent to an IRS - Indian Residential School. Her parents, aunties, brothers, and sisters had experienced unspeakable abuse at those schools, and some did not survive the ensuing PTSD.

After she left, we would sometimes lose touch for years. Eventually we would reconnect. It was a joy to welcome her sons into our funny hybrid family, knowing that they had other relatives we would never meet sharing the titles of Gramma, Grampa, Aunty, and Uncle. We still call one another Sister, though I recognize that I remain in her life now by invitation only. She has struggled to strengthen bonds with her true kin, at times feeling she is not Indigenous enough and at other times that she is too much so to fit in with non-Indigenous society. She knows that my parents did not set out to harm her, and that they did their best to show her love and care in ways that were familiar to them.

It wasn't until I was in my 40s, after having rejected Christianity myself and attained my Diploma of Applied Psychology and Counselling, that I began to grasp the sickening scope of the 60s Scoop and our family's role in it. It was during that time that I also started to learn about the horrors of Canada's Residential Schools and the despicable partnership between the Catholic (and Presbyterian, Anglican, United, Methodist) church and the Canadian government, whose greed for land allowed them to try and eliminate my sister's entire culture. They wanted to wipe out any remnants of First Nations history, which is why they criminalized their potlatch ceremonies, stole their children, and forced them into schools where their hair was cut off, their clothing burned, and their language forbidden. Siblings were not even permitted to interact or provide comfort to one another.

THIS is the true legacy of Christianity in North America.

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