RRFN band member and ‘Sixties Scoop’ survivor shares story

Sam Odrowski

Without a case worker or assessment, a four month old native girl was involuntarily removed from her family by Fort Frances Catholic Children’s Aid in the late 60s

Renee Linklater, now 50, who’s a member of Rainy River First Nations (RRFN), is one of the roughly 22,000 Indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their parents during the “Sixties Scoop” from the late 1950s into the 1980s. She was put into foster care before being adopted, without any paperwork, by a family who lived in a little village called Whitevale, just north of Pickering, in southern Ontario.

“I grew up feeling very lost,” Linklater said. “I didn’t even have access to the information to help me form who I was or what my purpose in life ought to be.”

Linklater told the Times that because of her apprehension, she had a loss of identity. She lacked hope, meaning, purpose, and belonging as a youth, which are all indicators of wellness, according to the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation, a not-for-profit aimed at addressing substance use and addiction.

“I didn’t know how to make sense of my life or who I was as an Anishinaabe person,” she remarked.

“I couldn’t even envision what my path forward was because I didn’t even know where I was standing,” Linklater added.

“I felt so ungrounded and aimless and unsupported . . . and I think because of that there was definitely times where I felt depressed and suicidal–absolutely.”

Those feelings weren’t the result of Linklater’s adopted family, who she said tried their best to provide her with love and care.

“But the interesting part is that my adopted family had very serious mental illness and substance use issues,” she noted.

“The adopted father received electric shock treatment and was hospitalized in a psychiatric [institution] in the 70s and I grew up in a household where people were just trying to survive and function as best they could, often using substances to get through on a day to day basis.”

“There was a time in my life when I had a lot of anger that the system took me out of one family and put me in another family, that struggled so intensely, but really my anger was about my loss,” Linklater added.

She told the Times that she still carries that loss today, having never met her mother, who passed away in a car accident.

“That was probably the greatest loss, for both of us,” Linklater remarked.

She said her mother was actively searching for her around the time she passed away, just three years before Linklater was reconnected with her family in RRFN, at age 18.

“My mom actually called my father who lived in Red Deer Alberta around that time–called him in the middle of the night–and said please don’t give up looking for her, we really have to find her . . . then within a few months she died in that car accident,” Linklater recalled.

At 15, she began to have conversations with her adopted mother about getting her Indian Status as a First Nations person and she was able to do so before connecting back with her biological family.

At 17, she was living in Toronto and registered with an adoption disclosure agency for family members that may be looking for her; but that did not result in a match despite her aunt having registered as a connection for her.

“I was in a summer school course and I was really quite lost, really searching for my identity,” Linklater said.

“I had been going to the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (NCCT), often looking around at people just wondering, might this be a relative of mine, could she be my mother, and just kind of always having that lens that I could be in the middle of an area with my family and not even know it.”

While in the summer school course, Linklater did a project on the NCCT and it sparked a conversation with her teacher about her First Nation roots.

She knew she was from Rainy River because it was on her status card and her teacher acknowledged that he knew she was Ojibwe because he studied Native Studies at Trent University.

From there, Linklater learned that if she wanted to go to university her band could help cover the cost of tuition, so she called RRFN to inquire about her education.

After providing the band office with her information, she was told they’d call back in a couple weeks but 20 minutes later she received a call from RRFN’s then chief, Sonny McGinnis.

“He said ‘you know I probably shouldn’t be calling you right now but I’m your cousin and we’ve been looking for you for a really long time,'” she recalled. “I just about fell over when I heard that.”

McGinnis told Linklater to contact a worker who was waiting for her call at Weechi-it-te-win and she ended up talking to her aunt who connected her to other relatives.

“Over the next three or four hours I was on the phone with different family members and that was kind of my evening and then within a week Weechi-it-te-win flew me home,” Linklater noted.

“I landed on the Tarmack in Fort Frances and I’ll never forget not only how nervous I was but just that experience of walking off the plane, coming onto the pavement and looking over and . . . for the first time seeing people that looked like me.”

Fortunately, Linklater said she connected with her family at a young enough age where she hadn’t developed her identity yet and was able to grow into it, surrounded by support.

“What I’ve really come to understand . . . is the impact of when we lose our family. When we lose those opportunities to be connected with our culture, particularly when we’re really young,” she explained.

“That puts us out in the world, without any support, without any spiritual framework, without any cultural tools, and without that family support network to help us grow and learn and develop in really important ways as Anishinaabe people.”

Linklater had an opportunity to work for Grand Council Treaty #3 in the 90s as a special assistant to the Grand Chief, and was able to reconnect with the broader communities in Treaty 3.

“I was able to be in the communities, be in the culture, hear our language all the time, and be close to my family,” she recalled.

But many others weren’t so lucky.

“I think of how hard it must be when those who were taken in the Sixties Scoop didn’t get a chance to go home until they were a little older, sometimes in their 20s, 30s, and 40s,” Linklater remarked.

“I was still quite young and underdeveloped when I came home, there was so much for me to grow into.”

Linklater told the Times she knows of a handful of others who were scooped from the government in her immediate circle and RRFN was definitely impacted.

“I really think that they were carrying out an assimilative policy and that’s the reason for my apprehension,” remarked Linklater, whose mother and both grandparents went to residential school.

“These removals were not because of assessment, it was because there was intentional efforts to remove First Nations children from their families.”

From a political standpoint, Linklater feels the government was purposely trying to fracture Indigenous families and remove them in a cohesive way from the lands they inhabited for thousands of years.

“The reason why they were motivated to do so comes down to that very tenant that they were trying to access our land and resources, and in order to do that they had to remove us from it,” she noted.

While Canada has made some efforts to reconcile the injustices of the Sixties Scoop and residential schools, there’s still a long road ahead to reconciliation with First Nations, Linklater noted.

She said moving forward Canada needs to support Indigenous communities, organizations, and service providers to design and implement cultural approaches to help people heal.

“I think that’s a really big piece because it needs to be represented within the funding envelope, it fits within the research grants, it fits in the areas of evidence-based practice of what gets funded–what gets considered evidence,” Linklater explained.

She said bringing more traditional medicine forward and culturally relevant treatment models for Indigenous communities effected by colonialism is a “big part of reconciliation” as well.

For everyday Canadians, Linklater noted that learning the country’s history, its impacts, and confronting existing stereotypes, racism or discrimination will help put the country on a stronger path towards reconciliation.