Dozens of adoptees gathered in Winnipeg on Monday to tell their stories — many for the first time — and figure out how to get justice.
Coleen Rajotte was taken from her Cree community in Saskatchewan when she was three months old and raised by a Manitoba family. Adoptees were robbed of their real families and feel someone has to be held accountable, she said.
"If someone came into your home today, took your children and shipped them to the United States and around the world, we would want answers," she said. "That's what we as adoptees are asking for. Someone has to take responsibility for this."
From the 1960s to the 1980s, thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their homes by child welfare services and placed with non-aboriginal families. Many consider the adoptions as an extension of the residential school system, which aimed to "take the Indian out of the child."
Rajotte said she was lucky enough to be placed into a loving home, but she lost her language, her culture and her connection to her ancestral home. When she recently went to the home she would have grown up in had she not been adopted, Rajotte said it was overwhelming.
"I was physically ill for days just trying to process all of that," she said.
But while residential school survivors have had a formal apology and are the subjects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, adoptees haven't been formally recognized.
"Personally, I would like to see some kind of formal apology to all adoptees that were taken from their homes," Rajotte said. "That's a lot of children — 20,000 children across Canada."
A spokeswoman for federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said there would be no comment.
"As this case is currently before the courts it would be inappropriate to comment further," she said in an email.
A class-action lawsuit launched by some survivors in Ontario in 2009 is slowly making its way through the courts. The lawsuit was certified, but Canada recently won leave to appeal that decision.
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said it's time adoptees were given the same opportunity for reconciliation as residential school survivors. Some adoptees were put with families where they were treated as farm hands or subjected to horrific abuse, he said.
"It's not an easy thing to talk about the hurts that many of them endured as children, not knowing who they were, being a brown face in an all-white school as an example," said Robinson, a residential school survivor who organized the two-day gathering.
"Those things are very difficult to talk about in this current day but they have to be addressed."
Those adoptees at the gathering hope to emerge with a strategy for recognition and a sense of what supports they need to heal, he said.
"Compensation no doubt will come up," Robinson said. "There's got to be a certain degree of accountability by governments."
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