“We became invisible minorities”: Childhood Development and the Government as Parent

By: Émilie Lebel

Émilie Lebel

Contributing Writer

Émilie is an emerging freelance writer specialising in health and social justice. Her knowledge base includes an Honours Bachelor of Health Sciences & Psychology (uOttawa, 2013), a Master of Health Sciences in Occupational Therapy (uOttawa, 2015), and a certificate in Concurrent Disorders (University of Toronto & CAMH, 2022) along with years of experience in community mental health and acquired brain injuries.  Emilie is passionate about effective positive social change – which she works to spark through education and meaningful discourse.

 This article is part of a series exploring how residential schools have destabilized the social determinants of Indigenous health. Each feature amplifies the voice of a knowledge keeper to examine the ongoing legacy of these institutions in communities today.

First came the residential schools, and then the Sixties Scoop—a continuation of problematic policies which further destabilized Indigenous communities.

Dr. Jacqueline Marie Maurice is an expert in Indigenous health education and serves as the chief executive officer of the Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation. She holds a Doctorate of Social Work specialising in Indigenous child welfare from the 1960s to the 1980s. Dr. Maurice explains the Sixties Scoop as a period during which child welfare authorities removed Indigenous children from their families, alleging “inadequate parents” and “socially disorganized” communities. Removals occurred from the 1950s until the 1980s, and they were frequent. Approximately 20,000 Indigenous children across Canada were taken from their homes during this period.

The Scoop was not an isolated event. As Dr. Maurice explains, the policies which led to the Scoop were a response to the problems created in previous generations by residential schools. As she wrote in 2014, “Federal and provincial governments were instrumental in perpetuating the ‘social disorganization’ of Aboriginal communities,” notably through these schools. Unquestionably, she adds, colonial structures generated “systems, practices and processes that really severed all those ties during the height of the residential school era, well over 100 years.” Then, explains Dr. Maurice, “they infiltrate the next generation, my generation, who grew up without parents and the justification for that was ‘these parents don’t have the skills necessary.’” As she emphasises, “it’s pretty darn hard for parents to parent children when they haven’t been parented themselves!”

After government officials scooped children from their communities in such high numbers, the question was how to care for all of them. As child welfare falls under provincial jurisdiction, each province came to its own answer. In Saskatchewan, explains Dr. Maurice, the government’s approach took the form of the “Adopt Indian Métis Program” (AIM) — a campaign to place Indigenous children in white adoptive homes. The Scoop attempted something the residential school program had sought to achieve in earlier decades: acculturate Indigenous youth into the white majority. “We were minorities,” says Dr. Maurice, “then we became invisible minorities. Out of sight, out of mind.”

As a survivor herself, Dr. Maurice spent her childhood in non-Indigenous foster homes, without knowledge of her origins or her family. “I really didn’t know,” she notes, “even throughout my twenties, until I started my research: I was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan – which is very much a Métis, Cree, Indigenous community.” Her search was difficult, costly, and yielded only a three-and-a-half page case summary to cover a duration of 18 years.  With Métis and Inuit children, in fact, documentation was particularly sparse and often omitted information such as Métis status, adoptive home, or even if the child was registered for adoption. Dr. Maurice was not registered for adoption and thus became a permanent ward of the Saskatchewan government. “Then,” she notes, “I went through 14 foster homes as a result of that oversight, in terms of not being registered.” The inaccessible documentation means that many people today are still searching for loved ones, and still left wondering who they are.

Childhood Experiences with the Government as Parent

Both the residential schools and the Sixties Scoop produced adverse early-life experiences for thousands of Indigenous youths who, as a result, have carried an increased risk of difficulties throughout their lives.

In fact, a majority of survivors report experiencing various forms of abuse during formative years spent in residential schools or in care. As detailed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, “survivors reported experiencing one or more of the following types of abuse in the schools: sexual abuse (32.6%), physical abuse (69.2%), and verbal or emotional abuse (79.3%). The majority (71.5%) reported that they had witnessed the abuse of others.” With the knowledge gained through her research and work, Dr. Maurice can attest to the unfortunate similarities among Scoop survivors. She also recognizes this pattern from her own experiences. “Young girls that become self-destructive may have experienced sexual violence or abuse and that certainly was my case, you know, in terms of some of the traumas.”

In addition, growing up in these circumstances deprived many Indigenous children of positive role models, resources, and opportunities. For example, notes the TRC’s report, “the lack of positive strategies for dealing with inter-personal conflict may have led to high rates of family breakdown and problems that youth carry with them into their adult lives.” In Dr. Maurice’s case, she was asked to leave her home after speaking out against her abuse; so, at 15 years of age, she faced the realities of life on her own. “I dropped out of high school in Grade 10 because basic survival became important,” she explains, referring to the need for income and housing. In addition, she emphasizes the hardships of being alone. “I had no family in my life,” she stresses. “No one. The built-in natural social safety net did not exist. Those ties were severed… Foster care was and still is a great bootcamp for becoming homeless because you don’t really have home nor family. You can’t go back and have a soft place to land.”

What’s more, the healthcare system plays its part by mislabelling Indigenous children living in such environments. “They didn’t make the connection,” states Dr. Maurice, and instead caused further harm through incomplete care and damage to the children’s self-esteem. For instance, Dr. Maurice’s medical files often simply read “foster child” as the admitting diagnosis. At 10, she was diagnosed as “slightly mentally retarded” – a stamp loaded with shame. Then, she was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder. “I really feel that all survivors who were labelled with adjustment disorder, we should get an order of merit,” says Dr. Maurice. “If anything, we adjusted quite well in terms of resiliency and responding to the realities, good, bad or indifferent at the time…in terms of what we endured.” Those are only some of the descriptors which contributed to breaking the spirits of so many children, notes Dr. Maurice. “There’s many others for thousands of us.”

The cumulative effects of abuse, neglect, decreased opportunities, and limited resources held back many Indigenous children. “It takes a lot of energy to persevere and to journey forward,” states Dr. Maurice. “A sense of powerlessness and helplessness, and then hopelessness become really important.” These overwhelming emotions take root and ground many in environments and patterns which continue to affect their health into adulthood.

Childhood Development: A Key Social Determinant of Health

Childhood circumstances set the stage for our lives. They have influence over many enduring aspects of our future selves – including our health.

Consequently, childhood experiences and early childhood development are key social determinants of health (SDH). “Early childhood is a crucial time of physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and language development,” notes the Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative (2018). To grow, we interact with and use the resources of our environment, and so we are limited by what those resources are.

Unsafe, stressful, and unresponsive childhood environments are health damaging experiences which can lead to vulnerabilities.  “Developmental vulnerabilities present in early childhood have been linked to a number of health and social outcomes in later life including chronic diseases, mental health problems, literacy, and economic participation” (Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative, 2018). Such outcomes can include “obesity, malnutrition, mental health problems, heart disease, and criminality” (Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2008). The mechanisms can be quite clear: for example, access to healthy food in childhood supports brain development. Conversely, food insecurity at such a critical time can have lasting impacts on the brain. As well, hormones generated in childhood can precipitate or trigger health issues later in life, such as heart disease, auto-immune breakdown and diabetes (Amos, 2011 as cited in Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Stout R., Larstone, R. & Sutherland, J, 2022).

Just as importantly, childhood is when we develop our ability to form trusting relationships, namely via attachment to our primary caregivers. Without secure attachment to a safe, understanding, and stable caregiver, a child’s ability to establish and maintain relationships can be impacted (Maurice, 2014). As well, having role models from whom to learn social skills and emotional regulation skills further supports a child’s ability to build a social network and thus supports resilience. These skills and abilities are protective against future health issues, and promote the experience of success in settings such as school or work.

The opportunities afforded or missed in childhood impact other SDH. For example, the chance to attend a good school does more than cognitively and socially stimulate a child – it also gives access to better paying jobs down the line. Indeed, notes the Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008), “Early Child Development has a determining influence on subsequent life chances and health through skills development, education, and occupational opportunities.”

The impact of negative childhood circumstances is compounded by the severity of unsafe and stressful environments. As recent works notes, “The effects of traumatic events in childhood can be linked to mental illness, substance use, and other health problems in adulthood, as well as having negative impacts on education, job opportunities, and earning potential” (Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Stout R., Larstone, R. & Sutherland, J, 2022).  As the TRC concluded, residential school survivors report particularly high incidence of depression, PTSD, sexual issues, substance use disorders, and dissociative symptoms.

Dr. Maurice’s early experiences have left their mark on her health and wellness. “I was a very sick kid,” she says, “with severe disabilities” which required many hospital visits and major surgeries. “From the ages of 14 to about the age of 21 – which seems like a lifetime when you’re younger– I tried alcohol as a means to journey through those losses and traumas. But that obviously didn’t work.” She recounts an adolescence spent “self-destructing,” cycling in and out of a local psychiatric ward through multiple suicide attempts. “I was breaking down and trying to break through all those labels at the same time with very little support.”

Breaking the Cycle

Hurt children grow up and live with the mental and physical health impacts of their childhood experiences. In adulthood, they may lack understanding or support, and so the cycle continues.

“It’s so easy to get into blaming the victim,” says Dr. Maurice, “but you have parents and family members who have experienced trauma and loss themselves, the high incidence of suicide, or even homicide.” The ongoing response of removing children from their families, she explains, passes these obstacles onto the next generation. Research reviewed in Greenwood, de Leeuw, Stout, Larstone, and Sutherland (2022) supports this dynamic and reveals that “the government’s justice system and youth protection system are poorly adapted for and discriminatory against First Nations children, adolescents, and families, and that they continue to weaken the fabric of First Nations society, in a way perpetuating the effects of residential schools.”

So, how do we break the cycle? “Above all, colonial systems such as education, justice, health, and welfare must be dismantled or restructured. These systems uphold practices and policies that not only contribute to mental illness among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis youth, but also prolong intergenerational trauma” (Greenwood, de Leeuw, Stout, Larstone, & Sutherland; 2022). Dr. Maurice suggests we turn the current system on its head: remove the person causing familial dysfunction and “allow them to get health, healing, and wellness support because we know that ‘hurt people hurt people’,” she says, adding that if we invest in prevention rather than removals, “that means investing in the family.”

Since its inauguration in 2021, the Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation aims to support and invest in survivors and their families. “Our mission and vision,” explains Dr. Maurice, “is everyday accompanying survivors, their families, and descendants along their healing journey.”  This mission currently takes the form of gathering stories and building recovery programmes. “We want to let them know that they are heard, they are validated, and they are no longer alone”, says Dr. Maurice.  Furthermore, the Foundation’s goal “is to create that understanding and compassion across society so that there’s increased knowledge, awareness, and education in society…to know that this really did happen.”

Finally, explains Dr. Maurice, “creating processes instead of structural roadblocks is really important.” Consequently, the Foundation offers wellness grants — funding for Indigenous organisations that provide intergenerational healing. “That’s the greatest investment,” she stresses, “at the start of the day and at the end of the day. There’s a long way to go, but there’s progress.”


Commission on Social Determinants of Health. (2008). Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health: Commission on Social Determinants of Health final report. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Stout R., Larstone, R. & Sutherland, J., editors. Introduction to Determinants of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ Health in Canada. Toronto (ON): Canadian Scholars Press; 2022.

Maurice, Jacqueline Marie. The Lost Children : A Nation’s Shame. Professional Women Publishing; 2014.

Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative. (2018). Key Health Inequalities in Canada; A National Portrait. Canada: Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy; The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press.

Further Reading

Downie, G & Lemire, J. (N.D.). The Secret Path.

Greenwood, M., de Leeuw, S., Stout R., Larstone, R. & Sutherland, J., editors. Introduction to Determinants of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ Health in Canada. Toronto (ON): Canadian Scholars Press; 2022.

Jean, Michel. Tiohtiáke. Montréal: Libre Expression; 2021.

Maurice, Jacqueline Marie. The Lost Children : A Nation’s Shame. Professional Women Publishing; 2014.

Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative. (2018). Key Health Inequalities in Canada; A National Portrait. Canada: Public Health Agency of Canada.