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.

NEXT: Meet the Man Who Hated Carbs Before It Was Cool

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  1. First! Nothing else to say.

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        1. I love this juxtaposition.

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  2. Every time someone tells me how good government is, I mention things like this which didn’t happen all that long ago. Tell me again, I say, how any private enterprise could have done something like this.

    This continued into the 1980s? Isn’t that the same time span as Australia and their aborigines? You statist apologists always act like old government was the evil version, ancient unenlightened despotic government before the Progressives took over and expanded government into the sprawling monster it is today, before racial enlightenment in the 1960s finally overthrew the last remnant of conservative backwardness. How do you explain this continuing so into such recent times?

    You, Tony — go on, tell me how good government is, how noble, how it only reacts to market failures. Tell me how wise and all-knowing and beneficent government is.

    1. Bingo, the amount of stupid fellow Canadians I run into with this worldview is almost mind blowing. “This time will be different” should be our national motto, many fail to see the “problems of today” the government panders fixes for were the yesteryear “solutions” to the government’s “problems of today”.
      With Turd-owe we have just put it into hyperdrive.

    2. “Roads? Where Reason and Libertarianism are taking us, we won’t get any roads.” No. Just because some government is bad is no logical excuse for using your prejudice to assume that all government is bad. For example, I prefer the NHS in the UK, for all its myriad flaws, to market-based solutions that end up far more expensive and much less effective.

      1. I have a cousin, a paediatric surgeon who works around the world. She has recently taken a position in the NHS system and is shocked at how backwards it is in comparison to other western countries. Outdated technology and techniques abound. Is that a good thing?

        Even though this is the case, how much of the NHS’s (or any other “socialised” medicine) current and future improvements in technology and techniques are generated from the American system?

        The true cost of all socialised systems are hidden by piggybacking on innovation generated from the American medical “free market”. Is the American system fucked? Yes, without a doubt, but the benefit to the world is undeniable.

        Disclaimer – No I am not an american, nor do I live in america, but I have had an experience with the american medical system while travelling. Thank god for travel insurance!

        1. Giles, the British cartoonist who was a touchstone from WWII until his death in 1994 was a socialist in his youth and did’t really change much. Everything I ever needed to know about the British National Health service is summed up by the fact that Giles was making fun of it’s shortcomings as early as the mid-1950’s. A die hard lefty…and he mocked the NHS.

      2. I’d hardly describe the US system as “market-based”. The biggest problems stem from all the ways that regulations, subsidies and tax policy distort the market. I’m confident the US system would be both less expensive and more effective if the medical business were treated more like any other business.

  3. Shades of Arthur Conan Doyle! Next thing you know they’ll legalize choice and poor Donald will be forced to order air strikes against Canada…

    1. Fuck off Hank.

  4. Yet Reason still supports taking innocent Mexican children away from their home and turning them into Americans so that Reason editors can buy strawberries for 1 cent a pound cheaper..

    1. This is like a fallacy omelette.

  5. Oh, the humanity!

    1. Oh, for gawd sakes, if you’re going to steal my line, at least do so with emphasis:


      1. Oh, the huge manatee!

  6. What is unique and ahistorical about the crimes of European colonialists isn’t how evil they were, for the slavery, genovide, and cultural suppression were commonplace in nearly every civilization and culture in history, but that they eventually came to the conclusion that these things were bad.

    People need to keep that in mind. Europeans and white people sanitize their history, but all colonized” people are even more guilty of whitewashing their own histories prior to European contact. The “noble savage” fallacy is alive and well.

    1. They were so noble that they had slavery in the western frontier country even after the civil war! Because who doesn’t like selling their daughter for some nice blankets or a really good horse???

  7. Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history and specializes in science fiction/fantasy and Native American studies. She teaches liberal studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

    This is the best byline ever. Each time I think it’s peaked and can’t get any better, it finds a way to kick it up a notch or ten.

    1. How the hell do you end up specializing in both?

      1. I believe the suggestion is that science fiction/fantasy and Native American studies are more or less the same thing.

        If you specialize in one, you’re already more or less qualified in the other.

        1. Oh, I believe Native American studies is a thing, a totally separate thing from sci/fi studies and something you could make a career out of. I grew up near Cahokia Mounds, so I saw the fruits of the labour.

          I just can’t imagine those two disciplines are located in the same building.

          Lenoir-Rhyne University

          I bet their football team kicks ASS.

          1. Lenoir-Rhyne is a nice little college in the North Carolina mountains. You can’t even see Canada from there though. They have reasonable athletics for the small college scene. I attended L-R for three semesters and one of my buddies passed for 5 touchdowns and rushed for another in a game against a rival school. So they were pretty good that year. But no athletic scholarships at the division III level.

            It used to be a Lutheran seminary, but I didn’t see any mention of that on their website.

            BTW, if you are a libertine libertarian, I recommend attending a seminary college. They usually provide free tuition to the children of the clergy. Which means there are lots of young women who have been kept under the thumb just a little too hard and are now out on their own for the first time.

          2. Would you rather learn about the intracies of The Klingon Empire, or the Navajo?

            1. Apparently it’s not necessary to choose.

            2. Whichever allows for my thesis to be on Seven of Nine.

              That’s Navajo, right?

      2. What a world of abundance in which we live where people can expend large sums of money for such laughably worthless advanced degrees. Seriously, her bone fides should serve as the punchline to a joke, not an academic pedigree.

      3. Frankly, most ‘science’-fiction is just high-fantasy with a different name for magic.

  8. OMG, you got suckered into spruiking an SJW piece created by the freakin’ CBC?! Jesus Christ, that propaganda machine is so far to the left, they make the SJWs at PBS look like the alt-right.

    I feel sorry for any legitimately aggrieved party whose case is taken up by the CBC. How would anyone know it was real?

    Find another source.

  9. P.S. Much of the Indian school fiasco was a result of well meaning progressives trying to force the issue of integrating minorities into society. It’s interesting that the same sorts of things happened to aboriginals everywhere in the English speaking world, at least everywhere that considered integrating minorities to be the proper purview of government.

    It happened with First Nations in Canada, with Maori in New Zealand, with the Aboriginals of Australia, and with Native Americans here in the U.S. Different countries way of dealing with the past on this tells us a lot about their national character.

    In Australia, they look at stone age peoples blaming them for what the people who brought them there as prisoners did, and they mockingly say they want the British to give them their land back in Scotland. In the U.S., we nod our heads and say that was tragic–and wonder why anyone would think individuals today should be held responsible today for something that happened before many of us were born. In Canada, they agonize and torture themselves over the past–the stain can never be washed away. Only Canada could build a national museum for human rights–and be successful as a tourist destination. It’s sort of like the American penchant for slasher movies, except where Americans love to feel scared, Canadians love to feel guilty.

    1. As a transplanted American, I approve this message.

    2. A waste of good guilt, if you ask me. At least feel guilty about stuff you did yourself, so you can maybe change.

      But feeling guilty about stuff other people did…I don’t even think that’s guilt at all, just a form of self-righteousness.

    3. Much of the Indian school fiasco was a result of well meaning progressives trying to force the issue of integrating minorities into society.

      Yes, but in recent decades, they figured out that it was much better for them to force minorities into permanent poverty, permanent government dependence, and turning them into reliable progressive voters. That’s arguably even worse than what progressives used to do.

    4. We actually had a Native American Vice President, Charles Curtis. He was between 1/8 and 1/4 Native American and spent much of his childhood on a reservation, and spoke Kaw. Modern day progressives have erased him from history though, because he opposed the reservation system and thought Native Americans would be better off fully integrating into Western culture.

  10. So where is the paper trail? No seriously, how did they lose a kid? Wouldn’t there be documentation of where the kid went?

    1. It seems likely that the paper trail ended when she ran away from the white couple who adopted her.

      1. According to the article that was a rumor, so there is no documentation of her running away either.

        1. The rumor alluded to was that she “died violently while trying to make her way back to her Cree home and family”. It’s seems pretty well established fact that she was adopted by a white couple. That white family seems to have lost track of her.

          Runaways leave very little paperwork. The only paperwork is usually a polce report by one of the parents saying “oops we seem to be missing one of our children. Could you try to find her?” Some parents don’t even leave that since they are more or less happy to be rid of the problem.

          So what do you think happened?

    2. Hey, stock shrinkage is a universal problem.

  11. Anybody would like to count at how many Republican and Democrat presidents,congress and senate allowed this to go on. And who finally killed the program. By the late eighties their was only Regan or Bush.

    1. Most of this stuff ran at the provincial/state level so you’d have to look at each one separately. But, as often, the problem is that no one actually explicitly voted for “let’s take the Indian kids and ship them off to different countries”. They just gave a bureaucracy broad powers and a vague mandate, and the bureaucracy ended up steamrolling those who had the least power to fight overreach. Then everyone pretended this was a surprising outcome.

      1. Your comment is a pretty good description of the CFPB, as well as many other US federal bureaucracies.

        Also, the Canadians have apologized. With sincerity. So, it’s all good. Have a Tim Hortons and a sip of maple syrup.

        1. I was just thinking about that very thing, every Prime Minister is pretty much required to apologize. Then the chattering classes judge it based on the previous apology. Basically worthless. But Trudeau jr. has a great quivering bottom lip and he tears up alot so his apology is currently the best.

          1. Even though it was the liberal party who pulled all the underhanded shit with the natives. They still love them the best.

    2. And who finally killed the program.

      American Indian communities are still forcibly indoctrinated by the US government. However, these days, instead of trying to force them to be successful members of mainstream society, the US government indoctrinates them into permanent victim status and government dependency. That is arguably even worse.

  12. But the goddamn Kanucks are sooo progressive! How could it be???

    1. Understand this as an exercise in progressive self-flagellation, and it all makes sense.

      1. It also helps to remember that these programs originated with the progressives.

    2. There’s this thing called “time” and things change over “time” . Those Canadians weren’t very progressive. I’m sorry that doesn’t fit your narrative.

  13. There is a fantastic movie about a similar effort in Australia with the aboriginal population.

    Rabbit Proof Fence is the true story of a group of young girls as young as 5 years old who were taken from their families to be “educated” on the other side of the country. They ran away and walked 1,500 miles across the outback desert to get home.

    The child actors are wonderful and Kenneth Branagh gives a great performance as the administrator in charge of the program – the distinguishing thing about his performance is that although he is the bad guy in the film, he portrays him as an earnest person who truly believes that he is helping these kids. It is the perfect portrayal of a government that doesn’t understand what the proper role of government is.

    If you haven’t seen it, I recommend taking the time to watch it as if you were seeing it in the theater – quiet and uninterrupted. It is a powerful film with a stunning epilogue.

    1. Isn’t it interesting that the narrative seems to be the same wherever you go?

      Why is it that the particulars of these situations don’t seem to make any difference? The historical experience of Aboriginals in Australia and aboriginals in Canada are not the same. Different histories, different cultures, different situations, different governments, different actors in those governments, . . .

      Is it more likely that aboriginal populations had the exact same experience all over the world?

      Or is it more likely that the narrative describing these events tends to elicit the same sympathy in modern audiences?

    2. Hugh Jackman made a movie about the Australian deal, too. Then again, Hugh Jackman thought wolverines were fictional animals, so I don’t know how much weight to give his take.

  14. She was adopted by an impotent douchebag and his commie wife by the name of Stack. She now lurks on the internet posting violent threats and incoherent ramblings.

  15. 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.”

    Like I said in the recent post about people registering for sex offender lists, I oppose summary executions. But I’ll ask out of curiosity: How many people are in favor of shooting the school board that ran that residential school?

    1. I wonder how many of the progressives today would have said then, “but their intentions are good”, or “you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette” … and many of these other excuses for the tyranny of socialisms.

      1. Many of the progressives today would say “it must have been conservatives; progressives never do such things!”

  16. Remember kiddies, this was Canadian “progressivism” of old. It’s really not that much different than progressivism of today.

  17. US government did precisely the same thing. Tried to school the indian out of the Indians.

    1. Details matter.

      Offering free schooling to American Indians that leads to their assimilation and loss of culture is perfectly fine as long as people choose it voluntarily. It is the compulsion that isn’t acceptable.

      On the other hand, subsidizing American Indian culture through government welfare and “charity” is just as morally wrong as forcible assimilation.

  18. Unfortunately these are always sold as “white people” imposing on “Natives” which ignores the fact it is a well meaning GOVERNMENT interfering in an individuals God given rights. Just look at “Finding Fish” (Antwone Fisher story) to see it happens all across North America to all manner of races. Government policies which have created beat dead, dead broke, and disenfranchised Dads and 40% of children living in fatherless homes (80% in the African American homes) with PC public school systems and child “welfare” agencies telling families how to properly raise their children is a result of that mentality. Government, under the guise of doing good, doing what government does.

  19. Progressives still believe the same thing today — that all racial and ethnic differences are cultural and that you can mold a young person to be anything you want with the right upbringing.

    Only now, instead of believing that minority kids should be forced to be like White people, now they believe White people and White culture are uniquely evil.

    1. On top of that, progressives claim that these kinds of abuses weren’t their fault because they always have the best intentions and are, by their definition, never racist. So, either conservatives must have sabotaged their great works, or it must have been conservatives all along that perpetrated those crimes, or perhaps “the Americans” were responsible for adopting these children.

  20. Another reminder of why you don’t let immigrants come and take over your country.

  21. Ken Shultz|4.14.18 @ 8:12PM|#

    Understand this as an exercise in progressive self-flagellation, and it all makes sense

    But it’s not.

    This isn’t about ‘self-flagellation’ at all. It’s about motion.

    Articles and pieces like this are designed to move the responsibility for progressive and leftist crimes onto their ideological enemies.

    First they move it to the current hated large group, in this case, all whites, so that even questioning what they’re doing becomes racist.

    Then, to alleviate the pressure on their core membership and constituency, the blame is laid at the feet of the ‘worst’ people in society–‘conservatives’. People who support traditional values (never mind that the ripping of children from their parents is, in no way, a traditional value and is, in fact, a time honored leftist tactic).

    From there it’s a simple push to attach the whole thing to the right.

    It’s why today, a party that had abolition as a founding plank, that fought for civil rights all through it’s history, finds itself tagged with the title ‘racist’ by people whose klan robes are hanging, waiting, in their closets.

  22. So, as somebody who is part native on both sides, to enough of an extend that I can’t grow a good beard and tan pretty well… I say this is kind of fucked, and I don’t think we should have done things like this, but at the same time integrating would actually be beneficial for them. The fact that they didn’t take to it is the sad part.

    In a way I am the perfect example of it “working” even though it effectively destroyed the existence of the native as a discernible person/group. My family simply got absorbed into the populace, and has done well. Far better than those that remained on reservations and essentially did nothing with themselves.

    IMO we should have just left them alone to fail miserably on the reservations, since that’s what they seem to be into doing. Even there they’re essentially living a higher standard of living than their ancestors had before whites showed up. Not to mention the fact that it IS possible to keep your religion, wear a feather in your hair if you want, and still become a mechanic or accountant! I have full blooded native friends that have done just that. Their dysfunction is totally on them. Once a white liberal sees somebody failing they JUST MUST try to help, even though it generally makes it worse :/

    1. What’s that you say, reservations are evil and stuff? Well we conquered the land fair and square. Just like groups have done throughout all of human history. Just like different tribes did to each other before whites arrived! So I don’t feel bad about that. If you add up all the reservation land, Native Americans actually have more landmass of their own than MANY countries on earth have. So it’s a bummer they lost the wars, but whatever. What’s done is done. Plus it created me, so I’m okay with that.

      Not to mention that there is evidence that what we think of as Native Americans in fact displaced black aboriginal type peoples in South America. They finally have DNA on this, although it had been guessed from bone structure in some of the oldest skeletons a long time ago. So they stole the land too! Not to mention some archeological evidence that proto-Europeans may have made it to the east coast many thousands of years earlier too, although evidence is thinner for this. People displace less successful groups. It’s sad, but it’s how it works.

      Personally I’d like to see all natives get their shit together and integrate a little more. Like I said you can have long black hair, a topaz necklace, and an accounting degree if you want. There’s nothing preventing it. All the fawning over the noble savage thing is overrated.

  23. I was born in Canada, which makes me a native of Canada and I… haven’t KILLED ANYONE !!! you LIARS !!! Stop the lying you hypocrites !!

  24. Bullshit

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