A 60s Scoop Adoptee’s Story of Coming Home
(“Raised somewhere else”)
by Colleen Cardinal
Tragic doesn’t even began to explain the life of Colleen Cardinal. Her biological parents, Esther and Ricky, were from Onihcikiskowapowin First Nation (Saddle Lake Cree Nation) in Alberta, Canada. This memoir is a remarkable journey for Colleen from her birth in 1972 to being torn from her parents who were deemed neglectful drunks in the first year of her life; through the horrific physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that she and her biological sisters suffered at the hands of their white adoptive father, Ronald White. Ronald, his white Mary (who was secretly biracial white and indigenous), and their biological son, Scott lived different lives than the girls who they forced into hard labor around the house and sexual abuse.
There are many passages in this book that I highlighted because the pain, misery, utter below-bottom despair, and rare signs of hope propelled me to want to keep reading even though the chapters were graphic and unpleasant traumatic stories. Colleen had five children of her own. It was hard to keep track of who fathered whom. I think there were three different fathers — all abusive to Colleen. Joseph, she described as the worst since he nearly killed her. She suffered through rape and beatings; one instance so intense she miscarried.
Colleen Cardinal’s abusive history is vital to understand because she was part of the “60’s Scoop” where Canada child services tore thousands of children from their people. They weren’t given to family or tribal kin for adoption. They were given to terrible white parents. The generation prior had been removed from their families and tribes too and sent off to residential schools which meet the definition of genocide. The white people who ran these schools forbid the indigenous students to use their native language, customs, clothing, or any identity at all.
“I thought this was how my life was meant to be: a broke-ass Indian living on welfare, just like the stereotype.”
The generational poverty, alcoholism, personality disorders, cycles of abuse, and PTSD are specifically rooted in the racism of colonialism. Colleen’s sisters had both become sex workers when they ran away from the White household. They didn’t have any choice. Unfortunately, her oldest sister Gina was murdered during this leaving behind orphaned children which different family members took stints in raising. The fleeting moments of hope came each time Colleen tried to go to college. She wanted to become a social worker and even found a long period of steady employment in crisis work. Trying to care for children without reliable babysitters forced her to leave job after job. The crisis work became too traumatizing as did what she believed would be an “easy, stress-free” job as a receptionist for the Assembly of First Nations.
Colleen was failed by the social systems in place until she finally encountered the right people — people who would dedicate their lives to helping the indigenous population. Life turned around again when she entered Sault College’s Addictions Counselor program. It was her first exposure to sharing circles and building trust in a group of people.
“I began to heal but something even more valuable was happening: I was learning spirituality, language, and culture. In my whole life I had never been exposed to smudging, praying, sweat lodge, ceremonies or any teachings about our Creator.”
The pace of the book feels natural. The author’s language changes about eighty percent through. Once Colleen had found some roots, she started to weave phrases of her Cree language into the text. Poor health forced her to seek out disability income but there was a silver lining here. She was able to set her own pace, her own passions, and begin to give to her community through public speaking. She co-founded gatherings for 60’s Scoop survivors. After finding the right friends, the right connections, there was no way not to keep internally cheering for Colleen, a woman by her own definition who failed as a mother. Her new found knowledge allowed her to educate others on the harms of colonialism, the complex PTSD (C-PTSD), and survival.
As stated, it’s not a pleasant story, but it is a necessary one that white people of North America need to read. In a time where the United States is “scooping” up children who are crossing in from Mexico looking for new lives and then sticking those children in concentration camps away from their siblings and parents, there has never been a more critical time to get educated on the trauma this causes.
Rating: 5 stars
The National Indigenous Survivors of Child Welfare Network co-founded by Colleen Cardinal
Nobel Women’s Initiative article on Colleen Cardinal