One of the worst experiences imaginable for a parent is the loss of a child.
Yet, this trauma has been inflicted upon thousands of aboriginal families in Canada, through the 1960s-1980s when their kids were taken from their homes, often without consent, by child welfare agencies during the Sixties Scoop.
Rainy River First Nations (RRFN) band member, Marcel Medicine-Horton, 49, is one of the 22,000 children who are estimated to have been “scooped”—taken from their families and communities for placement in foster homes or adoption—and he says the pain it's caused never goes away.
“That's 40 some years ago I was taken away, but the trauma's there . . . According to the medical doctor that I go see, I am in the post traumatic stress category,” he remarked.
At age seven, Medicine-Horton and his five-year-old brother, Derek, were separated from their parents and put in the care of Children's Aid Society (CAS).
Medicine-Horton remembers his caretaker at the time, Bellabones, bringing out two garbage bags of clothes, while he sat outside the band office with his brother, before a little brown car pulled up and took them away.
“It was the most fearful drive on a dusty road of my life," he recalled. ”I looked out the back window and all I could see, was dust-miles and miles and miles of dust.
“It seemed like we drove forever and ever, but in reality, we only went 25 miles,” he continued.
“As a little boy we could have been across the ocean, we didn't know where we were-no rights, no nothing.”
Medicine-Horton said he doesn't know what CAS's purpose was when he was taken; his parents, who survived residential school, had a very low income but the family was close.
“They were somehow 'saving' us, but I don't know how ripping a kid away from his family and making that kid cry every night-how is that helping?,” he asked.
“Cook me some bannock, help me feed myself . . . give me a bowl of soup, help me find a job raking leaves, but don't destroy the family.”
Medicine-Horton has two kids of his own and said if they were ever taken, he couldn't imagine what it would do to him as a parent.
“Those are the things you don't take into consideration," he remarked. ”I would be destroyed if my kids weren't there.
“Family separation—separating kids from their moms and dads—is the absolute wrong thing if you think you're helping,” Medicine-Horton added.
“I would have preferred to stay home as a poor family unit . . . You can keep your damn apples and cookies at children's aid, keep your pretty garden, keep your pretty shutters on your windows, I just wanted to have my mom and dad. That's it.”
During the time Medicine-Horton was separated from his family, he attended Sturgeon Creek School, which predominately had white students.
“You're one of two or three brown kids, amongst a bunch of non-native strangers and it didn't go well to say the least,” he recalled.
“A lot of discrimination, lots of anger—I would have preferred to stay poor.”
On top of the torment that Medicine-Horton endured at school, he was also sexually exploited as a young boy.
“I am an adult survivor of child sex abuse and I'm proud to say that because for 32 years I couldn't admit it to anybody,” he remarked.
“I carried 32 years of shame and hurt because of my treatment as a little boy," Medicine-Horton added. "The demons of my childhood I wish on nobody.”
Because of the abuse he endured as a child, Medicine-Horton grew up angry, unsure of why it happened to him. He felt very isolated.
“For 32 years, I thought I was the only person to have ever been mistreated as I was,” Medicine-Horton explained.
“I've had 20 different men sit at my fire and tell me of their sexual abuse that they suffered and every time one of those men leave my fire pit we hug, we laugh, because every time we always say, 'I thought I was the only one.'”
One of Medicine-Horton's key messages to fellow Sixties Scoop survivors, or those who have lived through childhood trauma, is that they're never alone.
“There is hope. It doesn't matter what happened to you as a kid, as an adult, there's hope if you have faith,” he stressed.
“I sit here as a sober Obijwe man. I only have two years and five months of sobriety; good ole Smirnoff saved my life when I was dealing with the demons.”
Medicine-Horton said his life has greatly improved since getting sober, thanks to his culture, children, and wife.
“When the demon visits in the middle of the night, I go to my culture to help bring me back," he noted. "I have to immediately go to a ceremony I was shown to do and proved to work for me.”
Medicine Horton said it's critical for people to not be so quick to judge others who are struggling with alcoholism or addiction, as they only see the effects of what happened to them, not the cause.
“When you see that guy laying on the road out there drunk as a skunk or methed out, what happened to him? How did he get there?,” Medicine-Horton asked.
He said an important part of reconciliation is understanding why people are suffering with poverty or addictions today.
“Reconciliation is sharing; it's getting to know who your neighbours are,” he explained.
Another part of reconciliation is addressing indigenous people's loss of language and identity due to the Sixties Scoop and colonization, according to Medicine-Horton.
To help restore First Nations culture, the first English-Ojibwa bilingual school was built in 2016 in Broken Head First Nation, Man., about 400km northwest of Fort Frances.
Medicine-Horton told the Times he would like to see something similar at RRFN.
“It took 90 years of the Canadian government, through the churches, to take the 'Indian-ness' out of the kid, my hope is that this community will build a full blown Ojibwe immersion school to bring back the 'Indian-ness' of our people,” he said.
Medicine-Horton hopes going forward the younger generations are empowered with knowledge about the Sixties Scoop and Canada's treatment of indigenous people historically.
“It's not a cliché for me—they are the future leaders, the chiefs, the councils, the CEOs, the principals," he stressed. "If you empower them now with this history, hopefully we will never go back there again.”