One day in 1968, a black car rolled into Denare Beach. A two-year-old girl was snatched from her home and put in the car, which rolled out again amidst yelling, screaming and chaos. The girl’s older sisters chased the car until it was out of sight.
Elaine Kicknosway, born Elaine Bernice McDermott in the Flin Flon hospital in 1966, would dream about the day she was taken from her family for years, until her older sister confirmed the dream was about an actual event.
Kicknosway, a person of Chippewan Cree heritage now living in Ottawa, is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop – a decade-long practice in which Indigenous children were removed from their families by child welfare workers and placed in foster homes or put up for adoption. Kicknosway faced both scenarios through the Saskatchewan Adopt Indian and Metis Program, spending about two years in a foster home where she faced severe abuse and neglect, before being adopted into a loving family.
“There are scars on my body,” said Kicknosway, and though she knows they are from her time in foster care, a lack of proper records prevents her from knowing how she received them.
“I have body memories. In the report, they wrote I was a ‘failure to thrive’ child, but I’ve spoken to other adoptees who say ‘they wrote the same thing about me.’”
Around age four, Kicknosway was placed into the care of a couple from Manitoba – her adoptive mother was Ukrainian, while her adoptive father was English.
“I was raised in a loving adoptive home, where I had the opportunity to be raised in international spaces, and have the opportunity to develop a view of the world I wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Kicknosway, who spent time living both in Saskatchewan and outside of Canada as a child before her adoptive family settled in Ottawa. Her adoptive parents were never informed of the cruelty she had faced in foster care.
“They didn’t realize I had been severely abused and neglected,” she said.
“I was this little being who only spoke Cree. My adoptive mother has told me she remembers how I would hide food, and would shake uncontrollably whenever there was yelling.”
Kicknosway’s adoptive parents were not encouraged by child welfare services to keep their adopted daughter engaged in her own culture, but in time they were guided to do so by local Indigenous people.
“My adoptive mom had Indian women coming up to her, telling her ‘This is what you need to do for her now,’” said Kicknosway, who attended her first powwow when she was seven.
“This nice Cree family started bringing me to the Friendship Centre – I can say that I have
been dancing in powwow circles since 1973.”
It was twenty years later, when Kicknosway was 27, when she decided she wanted to go home to her territory to learn where she was from and perhaps meet her family.
“I always knew I was born in Flin Flon and that I was from a local reserve. I started preparing two years before I actually left,” she said.
At the time, Kicknosway was struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, and decided if she was going to go meet her family, she needed a support system where she was, first.
“I sought counseling, rehab and relapse prevention, and started going to the women’s aboriginal centre here,” she said.
“Through their guidance and support, I prepared. They asked me what I wanted, and I said ‘to go home’. They said ‘Give it a try, see what happens.’”
It was July 1996 – just before Kicknosway’s 30th birthday – when she hopped on a plane. She stayed at a hotel in Flin Flon, then rented a car and drove to Pelican Narrows where her grandmother was from.
“I walked into the office in Pelican Narrows and said ‘I would like to renew my status card,’” said Kicknosway.
“It turned out the woman behind the counter at the office was my cousin. She started showing me photos of band members, and said ‘You look like this person, and this person, and this person.’”
The pair managed to discover one of Kicknosway’s aunts within the afternoon, and through that aunt a reunion with Kicknosway’s mother was arranged for the following day.
“There was no set plan. Word got out that Elaine came home,” she said.
“She had been waiting for me. And it’s not just me – mothers and families and communities are still waiting for their children to come home.”
Today Kicknosway is just short of 52 years old. She remains in contact with several of her 13 known siblings – some of whom were also taken as part of the Sixties Scoop or placed in residential schools, and many of whom are still in the area. She has been sober and drug free for 21 years, thanks, in large part, to the guidance of one of her sisters. Kicknosway is the cofounder of the Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network, an Ottawa-based organization that seeks to provide leadership, support and advocacy for people affected by Indigenous child removal systems in Canada.
“It’s important, because nobody else is doing it. No one has done anything specifically for welfare survivors,” said Kicknosway.
“When I look at residential school survivors, there’s a community for them. There was nothing like that for us, and now we have an international network.”
Earlier this month, the Canadian government agreed to put forward $800 million in compensation for Sixties Scoop survivors. Each survivor will receive between $25,000 and $50,000 each depending on how many come forward – the precise number of people affected by the scoop is unclear.
“It’s a start. I’m glad they are putting a start to healing engagement,” said Kicknosway of the funds, though she was disappointed Métis people were not included as people who could be compensated. Kicknosway added she would like to see a national system in place that would compensate survivors of the Sixties Scoop for travel costs to their home communities.
While Kicknosway was eventually placed in a loving home and had the opportunity to learn more about her culture, many survivors of the Sixties Scoop were not so lucky – they have lost their names, cultures and languages. Even Kicknosway, who is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation and has had the opportunity to learn about her identity, is still searching.
“I wonder what else is written about me,” she said, adding she has applied to obtain her full crown ward file.
“Somebody knows. They should be held accountable. Names should be named,”
she said. “That is reconciliation – own up.”