Colonial Legacy of the CCF: An interview with Allyson Stevenson

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The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) is often seen as a sacred cow of the Settler Left, and the Golden Age of social democracy not yet corrupted by liberalism of the NDP that succeeded it. In this interview, Dr. Allyson Stevenson challenges this myth by highlighting the colonial roots of Canadian social democracy founded on the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, specifically the separation of Indigenous children from their families through the child welfare system.

Red Anthropology: Your research is on the impact of Canadian child welfare system on Indigenous peoples. You specifically focus on the Sixties Scoop and Adopt Indian and Métis (AIM) in Saskatchewan, a child adaption program initiated by the CCF in the 1960s. Can you tell us about the program and how it came about?

Allyson Stevenson: Actually, the AIM program was first piloted, and then implemented on a province wide basis under the Liberal government of Ross Thatcher in 1967. However, the government was responding to the crisis of “overrepresentation” that had emerged during the 1950’s and 1960’s when the CCF was in power. The CCF had been in power in Saskatchewan between 1944 and 1964 during which the concerns raised by Indian and Métis peoples about issues such as loss of land, racism, and self-determination were channeled through the Department of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation.

I argue in my dissertation that, firstly, the CCF in SK sought to address the “Indian and Métis problem” through a very coordinated social welfare approach with the goal of integration. Two examples of the CCF’s very first attempts involved establishing Métis “training colonies” and the Green Lake Children’s Home for Métis children in the late 1940’s. Both are fascinating examples of the settler-colonial removal mentality laced with the social gospel desire for uplifting and social engineering beloved by the CCF. The colonies were eventually abandoned in 1960, after which the CCF shifted their focus to unmarried mothers and children using child welfare legislation. You also see in this period a shift in discourse from “assimilation” to what appeared to be a more benign goal of integration. This really picked up speed after the 1951 revisions to the Indian Act that enabled provincial laws to be applicable on reserves.

With this shift to integration into provincial health, welfare, and educational jurisdictions, both Indian and Métis peoples who lived in severe poverty came under the scrutiny of white experts. Rather than recognizing Indigenous rights to land and self-determination, social welfare experts approached colonization effects (poverty and ill health) through what I call “technologies of helping” by secular/therapeutic professional social workers. Children rapidly became “overrepresented” in the provincial welfare system in the 1960’s in SK. By 1967 they were 1/3 of all children in the care of the government. Aboriginal children entered the child welfare system through a number of different avenues, however the majority were apprehended rather than relinquished voluntarily by parents. Adoption laws, unmarried mothers legislation, and neglect laws are pieces of provincial legislation that were applied to Indigenous peoples in a coercive manner.

RA: The CCF is remembered for its socialist policies and anti-capitalist stance represented in Regina Manifesto. As an Indigenous person, what is your take on this view?

AS: I want to complicate this history by providing an indigenous critique of the settler-colonial prerogative of the men and women who made up that party at this time. It’s important to insert Indigenous voices into histories of this time period to challenge the heroic triumphant narrative that has often been used in a way that perpetuates the disappearing of First Nations and Métis peoples from the land and histories.

While I share many of the critiques of capitalism put forward by those who crafted the Regina Manifesto, I must point out the severely limited vision of this document and the farmer-labour alliance that it represented. The struggle for control over which group would benefit from the profits accrued from lands and resources in Saskatchewan, Eastern Canadian financiers, and corporations, or small farmers and workers, ignored Indian and Métis peoples.

At this time, Métis people were also organizing the Métis Society seeking a political solution to the accumulating losses from land hungry farmers. So it is interesting that that this is taking place at the very same time. One issue they were pursing was hiring a lawyer to determine whether they had a legal case against the federal government for failing to implement the scrip system for Métis in the west. First Nations people at this time were prohibited from organizing and raising funds to hire lawyers because of the Indian Act section 141, which really hampered their ability to mount any type of resistance to the government or its policies. Oppression in any form is offensive to me, however, my question is: Where in the Regina Manifesto, or the society that it envisioned, is there a space for indigenous peoples?

RA: The colonial child welfare system is very much still alive today. How did the CCF’s policies become inherited by successive governments of different political strands both provincially and federally? How does the CCF’s colonial legacy continue today?

AS: The legacy of the CCF in the contemporary child welfare crisis is perpetuated through the focus on removing children as a solution to marginalization and the lack of basic human rights of Indian and Métis peoples face in Canada. The logic of child removal has been legitimized and given the gloss of inevitability. This is because generations of trauma have accumulated and created a situation so complex and seemingly hopeless that the best anyone can offer is to repeatedly take children in the hopes that somehow it will make things better. The CCF, and Tommy Douglas specifically, bears a great deal of responsibility for the current crisis in child welfare. If he is known as the father of medicare, he can also be known as the father of the indigenous child welfare crisis in Canada also. Radical, isn’t it?

RA: In spite of the structural oppression they face, Indigenous peoples are never passive victims of colonialism, but active makers of their own histories. How have Indigenous peoples resisted the colonial welfare system? What is the significance of this resistance in the broader struggle for Indigenous self-determination today?

AS: Indigenous people have resisted in many, many ways. The Métis Society in 1971 organized against the Adopt Indian and Métis program, demanding it end immediately. The Saskatchewan Native Women’s Movement formed at this time and organized against child removal and forced sterilizations of women.They ended the AIM program by mounting a human rights complaint against the province for excluding Indian and Métis peoples from being foster and adoptive parents. In the 1980’s many Indian leaders across Canada mounted an aggressive campaign to end the removals of children to provincial welfare agencies, which is when you see a slowing of transracial adoptions, but not removals and fostering.

In the 1990’s Indian Child and Family Service agencies began to emerge. However, the issues with child welfare are really much, much larger than individual children and family, although individual children need safety and care. I argue that the resistance to child welfare is more than a matter of control. It speaks to the heart of who indigenous people are and whether they can continue to exist in this land. Kinship systems with children in the center are tied to place. Fracturing the kinship systems has been one of the key imperatives of the Indian Act and settler-colonialism in general. This is a very strategic attack because it strikes at the very center of indigenous nationhood. Kinship is nationhood and is tied to place, language and ways of knowing. Thus, the Canadian state’s removal of children whether to residential schools or child protective agencies is an act of colonial violence so profound it can be considered part of an ongoing war against the indigenous presence.

Allyson Stevenson (@doctorallyson76) is Faculty Member in Indigenous Studies at University of Saskatchewan. She obtained her PhD in 20th Century Canadian History from the U of S in 2015.

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