Chelovek/Dreamstime.com You may not have heard of Finding Cleo , much less listened to it. That needs to change.
One of the most disturbing and compelling works of investigative journalism this year, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s Finding Cleo unpacks generations of failed government policy and the toxic white paternalism that fueled them in both Canada in the United States, all in the quest to answer one question: Where is Cleo? What happened to the little Cree girl who was forcibly taken from her Saskatchewan family in the 1970s, exported like a product to the United States, and somehow lost to everyone who had known and loved her?
Cleo’s four surviving siblings—none of whom had seen her since 1974, when a child welfare worker took the crying girl away—likewise had been scattered across Canada and the United States, but ultimately they found each other again and turned to the CBC for help in finding their missing sister. Award-winning host and writer Connie Walker, herself a Cree from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, documents the subsequent investigation in the Finding Cleo podcast, which is available from iTunes and at www.cbc.ca/radio/findingcleo. Walker shows that the story of Cleo’s kin, the Semaganis family, is part of a much larger tragedy.
Why were the Semaganis siblings separated? Their mother, Lillian, might have felt overwhelmed at times raising six children as a single mother (more on that later), but the children were neither unwanted nor unloved. Their cherished grandmother was an obvious choice for a willing and capable caretaker, and nearby aunts, uncles, and cousins stood by to help. Lillian Semaganis even tried to adopt her own children from the Canadian child welfare system once she realized they would not be returned. But Canada had other plans. The question wasn’t about the fitness of the Semaganis family; it was about their race. The Semaganis children were part of the so-called "Sixties Scoop," a policy that existed from the 1950s into the 1980s by which Indigenous children were taken from Indigenous homes (some through surrender, others by force) to be fostered and adopted by white families.
Lillian Semaganis learned her children were part of the AIM (Adopt Indigenous and Métis) initiative when she saw them pictured in the newspaper as available for white adoption, described not unlike puppies or kittens from a shelter, in a way that only Indigenous children were "advertised" as goods for purchase. In one of the more chilling revelations in a podcast full of them, Walker discovers an internal memo in which the bureaucrat in North Battleford, Saskatchewan who was responsible for making the most Native children wards of the province and available for adoption was celebrated as "Salesperson of the Year."
The upshot for the Semaganis children and thousands like them was that they were removed from their own Native families and communities to be delivered into a bloated nightmare of a non-Native foster system (in which at least two of the Semaganis children were physically and sexually abused). Some whites adopted such children from the basest of motives, as some of the Semaganis children later discovered. But even those with the best of intentions, the most heartfelt sense of the white man’s burden, failed to appreciate what many of the children themselves seemed to grasp intuitively: that the state was leveraging adoptive parents’ racial assumptions to make them complicit in what amounted to coerced assimilation, or the forcible erasure of everything Indigenous about the adoptees. The Canadian government, aided and abetted by the U.S. government, worked from the premise that any Indigenous child would be better off with white parents, even abusive or predatory […]
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