Canada Kidnapped Native Children to 'Kill the Indian' in Them

A powerful podcast documents a Cree family's destruction by a government intent on eradicating their culture.



You may not have heard of Finding Cleo, much less listened to it. That needs to change.

One of the most disturbing and compelling works of investigative journalism this year, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation's Finding Cleo unpacks generations of failed government policy and the toxic white paternalism that fueled them in both Canada in the United States, all in the quest to answer one question: Where is Cleo? What happened to the little Cree girl who was forcibly taken from her Saskatchewan family in the 1970s, exported like a product to the United States, and somehow lost to everyone who had known and loved her?

Cleo's four surviving siblings—none of whom had seen her since 1974, when a child welfare worker took the crying girl away—likewise had been scattered across Canada and the United States, but ultimately they found each other again and turned to the CBC for help in finding their missing sister. Award-winning host and writer Connie Walker, herself a Cree from the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, documents the subsequent investigation in the Finding Cleo podcast, which is available from iTunes and at Walker shows that the story of Cleo's kin, the Semaganis family, is part of a much larger tragedy.

Why were the Semaganis siblings separated? Their mother, Lillian, might have felt overwhelmed at times raising six children as a single mother (more on that later), but the children were neither unwanted nor unloved. Their cherished grandmother was an obvious choice for a willing and capable caretaker, and nearby aunts, uncles, and cousins stood by to help. Lillian Semaganis even tried to adopt her own children from the Canadian child welfare system once she realized they would not be returned. But Canada had other plans. The question wasn't about the fitness of the Semaganis family; it was about their race. The Semaganis children were part of the so-called "Sixties Scoop," a policy that existed from the 1950s into the 1980s by which Indigenous children were taken from Indigenous homes (some through surrender, others by force) to be fostered and adopted by white families.

Lillian Semaganis learned her children were part of the AIM (Adopt Indigenous and Métis) initiative when she saw them pictured in the newspaper as available for white adoption, described not unlike puppies or kittens from a shelter, in a way that only Indigenous children were "advertised" as goods for purchase. In one of the more chilling revelations in a podcast full of them, Walker discovers an internal memo in which the bureaucrat in North Battleford, Saskatchewan who was responsible for making the most Native children wards of the province and available for adoption was celebrated as "Salesperson of the Year."

The upshot for the Semaganis children and thousands like them was that they were removed from their own Native families and communities to be delivered into a bloated nightmare of a non-Native foster system (in which at least two of the Semaganis children were physically and sexually abused). Some whites adopted such children from the basest of motives, as some of the Semaganis children later discovered. But even those with the best of intentions, the most heartfelt sense of the white man's burden, failed to appreciate what many of the children themselves seemed to grasp intuitively: that the state was leveraging adoptive parents' racial assumptions to make them complicit in what amounted to coerced assimilation, or the forcible erasure of everything Indigenous about the adoptees. The Canadian government, aided and abetted by the U.S. government, worked from the premise that any Indigenous child would be better off with white parents, even abusive or predatory ones, than with their own Indigenous families.

Now adults, the Semaganis siblings believed rumors that their sister Cleo, adopted by whites in the United States, died violently while trying to make her way back to her Cree home and family. In the end, those rumors weren't exactly wrong.

Cleo's story is not unusual. The AIM initiative was only the latest (failed) government policy to pass judgment on Indigenous cultures and seek their extinction.

This brings us to the question of why Lillian Semaganis, the mother of Cleo and her siblings, found herself at times overwhelmed by the challenge of motherhood. Where do you learn to be a parent? From your own parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles? From your friends' parents? From neighbors who are parents? From people in your community you hold up as role models?

Not, apparently, at boot camp.

That is essentially where Lillian spent six years of her life, without one holiday or one trip to visit her family. Like hundreds of thousands of other Indigenous children in Canada (and the United States, where the policy originated), Lillian had been taken by the state as a child simply because she was Indigenous and sent hours away to a residential school, where her life was one of compulsory re-education, strict regimentation, and often unspeakable abuse. U.S. Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, a pioneer of the boarding school program who established the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at a former military installation in Carlisle, summed up the goals of the policy. "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt explained in 1892. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

Finding Cleo is not simply about laying to rest the mystery of what happened to one Cree girl more than 30 years ago, although it does so in a powerful, gut-punching way. The podcast is also about generations of policy—within living memory, whose survivors are still searching for each other—that harnessed the potent forces of authoritarian control, paternalistic guilt, and racism, and produced, among other things, unanswered questions, broken families, and dead children.