Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Adoption of Frances T: Blood, Belonging, and Aboriginal Transracial Adoption in Twentieth-Century Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

The Adoption of Frances T: Blood, Belonging, and Aboriginal Transracial Adoption in Twentieth-Century Canada

Article excerpt

The provincial government of Manitoba Canada recently apologized for the traumas inflicted on Aboriginal people as a result of the "Sixties Scoop." This term is often used to describe government programs in the 1960s in which social workers placed Aboriginal children in non-Aboriginal foster and adoptive homes as a way of compelling them to accept white middleclass norms. (1) The apology came in response to survivors of Aboriginal transracial adoption policies, who joined with Aboriginal leaders and others in asserting that these policies were an important but largely ignored facet of the government's long-held assimilation strategy, and moreover, that they constituted a serious wrong for which the government should take responsibility. As this article tries to demonstrate, transracial adoption has in fact been implicated in the cultural genocide of Canada's Indigenous peoples for some time. (2) Focusing on the adoption case of Frances G--T--, a mixed-ancestry child who was adopted into a legally Indian family in the 1930s, this article examines how adoption was crafted into a method of state-directed Indigenous assimilation by officials in the Indian Affairs Branch. By eliminating competing forms of adoption, officials ensured that legal adoptions with Indian parents and children would conform to Euro-Canadian racialized understandings of Indigenous identity.

As we shall see, the adoption of a child officially designated as white into an Indian family caused bureaucrats in the Indian Affairs Branch in Ottawa an extraordinary amount of anxiety. (3) While it had long been assumed that Indian people would move from Indian homes to white schools and communities through assimilation and enfranchisement policies, this case illustrates how officials legally challenged an adoption that produced the reverse. (4) Frances' adoption and re-designation as legally Indian posed a serious threat to the longstanding policy of Indian assimilation and called into question the racial and gender hierarchies that were being established through Indian Act (1876) membership codes. (5) The adoption of Frances T--reveals an official obsession over the transgression of racial boundaries which, in reversing the standard order of things, this case produced. (6) Indian Affairs Branch staff sought to retain decision-making power over issues of blood, belonging, and Indian status, and in 1951 revised the sections of the Indian Act pertaining to adoption so that settler-colonial elimination goals were not subverted by the legal re-designation that could be afforded by modern adoption. (7)

The case of Frances T--provides an opportunity to illustrate how the intimate domain of the Indian family became a matter of concern for the most powerful persons in the country as they debated issues of blood, belonging, and the subversive potential of Indigenous adoption. Elsewhere I have argued that First Nations people used Euro-Canadian adoption laws in a manner that was consistent with Indigenous adoption protocols and family caring strategies. I demonstrated that a process of indigenization of legal adoption was underway as Indian people used the law to strengthen and support traditional kinship systems. (8) Through the ongoing colonization of Indigenous kinship systems, including adoption, the Indian Act has sought to individualize tribal people and discipline the wide variation of Indigenous gender relations and kinship practices into the Euro-Canadian nuclear family norm. (9)

The scholarship of J.R. Miller has had a profound and lasting impact on the historical writing of Canada's settler-colonial past. Beginning with Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, Miller synthesized the emergent field of Native-Newcomer relations. (10) In addition, he applied an interpretive framework that firmly abolished the smug notion of Euro-Canadian cultural and political superiority that had long been a hallmark of Canadian historical writing. (11) Followed shortly thereafter by the companion reader, Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada, Miller compiled the core scholarship that formed the foundation of the new field, taking into consideration time period and geographical variation, gender, and cultural specificity as key attributes for future endeavors. …

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