He was separated from his siblings, beaten for bed wetting and reduced to eating raw turnips to overcome severe hunger pangs.
Before the Fort Chipewyan native finally gave up on life and hanged himself at the age of 17 in 1984, Richard Cardinal described feeling sad and overwhelmingly lonely at being separated from his family and moved through a series of 28 foster homes.
On one occasion, he wrote about how odd, yet good, it felt to be hugged by a nurse when he was sick.
“Is this what a normal kid feels like?” wrote Cardinal in an entry that was read aloud by participant David Murphy at the Red Deer Public Library on Tuesday.
The exercise of having different people — mostly non-aboriginals — reading about the despair felt by Indigenous kids who were taken away from their families as part of the Sixties Scoop, was enacted as part of the reconciliation process at the Snell Auditorium of the downtown library.
Murphy, a retired youth centre administrator, believes this process helps people gain a better understanding of the root of many social problems.
“We need to know about our past to help us get to (a better) future.”
Adam North Peigan, president of the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta, said these sessions are being held throughout the province because “we want to be able to educate mainstream Alberta” about why some aboriginal people have ended up addicted or homeless.
Peigan once lived on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street before resolving to stop drinking to become a better parent. He admitted his main motivator was fear that his daughters would, like him, grow up in the foster care system.
“I didn’t want them to go through what I went through,” said Peigan, a Blackfoot from the Piikani First Nation, who was a year old when he was taken from his family.
An estimated 20,000 Canadian Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities and placed into non-Indigenous foster homes or adoptive homes from the late ’50s to early 1980s.
First Nations people consider the Sixties Scoop an act of cultural genocide. It followed (and sometimes coincided with) the abusive residential school system that left many former students who survived the forced integration unable to effectively parent.
The government reacted by getting child welfare workers to take their children away. Some of the kids were adopted by people as far away as Japan and Germany. But many suffered in Canada’s child welfare system.
Last year, then-Premier Rachel Notley officially apologized for the Alberta government’s role in this past practice.
That was a momentous moment for Peigan, who was one of 10 siblings taken by the child welfare system in 1965. Only he and an older sister and brother are still surviving — the other seven siblings died young, either by suicide or because of life on the street.
Peigan believes the bright spot is “we are very resilient people….When you think of all the atrocities and oppression that Indigenous people have suffered — and we are still here.”