HOW I LOST MY MOTHER, FOUND MY FAMILY, RECOVERED MY IDENTITY
Seized as a toddler and meeting her siblings for the first time in middle age, reporter Betty Ann Adam was part of Canada’s infamous Sixties Scoop. The National Film Board of Canada has made her deeply moving story into a documentary, Birth of a Family.
I’m three years old. I remember I’m wearing a plaid dress that I don’t usually wear. It’s too small for me.
There’s a policeman and a lady in the room and they’re being really nice to me. My mother’s arms are tight around me; she’s crying and pleading. I don’t know why they are taking me away from her.
I’m in a police car. It’s a hot summer day and the seat is burning my legs. The woman puts me on her lap. Next, I’m in an airplane looking down at tiny cars on the road. Finally, I’m at the farm where I find myself, without knowing why, living a new life.
I was part of the Sixties Scoop. I’m an indigenous woman who was raised as a foster child in a non-native home. My birth mother, Mary Jane Adam, attended Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. She left the school in her teens but never returned to the reserve to live.
AS MUCH AS I WANTED TO FIND OUT WHO I WAS, I HAD LIVED MY WHOLE LIFE AFRAID OF ‘INDIANS.’ I HAD MANAGED BY FITTING INTO THE WHITE WORLD. IT WOULD TAKE ME MANY, MANY YEARS TO TRULY SEE MYSELF AS AN INDIGENOUS PERSON.
She was 22 and single when I was born in Uranium City, a fly-in mining town in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan, 85 kilometres west of her home reserve of Fond du Lac. My sister Esther was born in Uranium City two years after me.
In the early 1960s, few in Canadian society had less power than an unmarried Indian woman with kids. Social workers apprehended Esther when she was three months old. My mother got to keep me for almost another year before they pried me from her arms.
The memory of that moment has never left me, but as an adult, it’s my mother’s pain that haunts me. It was the end of my childhood with my mother. It was the moment when the split happened. I wouldn’t hear my first language again until I was an adult.
LIFE IN- BETWEEN
I was placed with a farming family in a home that was safe and inclusive. There were three Metis foster children in the family, but we had almost no connection to other indigenous people or culture.
In the white world my foster family moved in, we stood out as different. My only option was to do my best to fit in.
In the 1960s, Canadians weren’t careful about what they said about Indians. Most looked down on them. When people were kind, verbal and non- verbal messages often implied that I was acceptable in spite of being native.
Our f amily moved to Prince Albert in 1968. In elementary school, we had a unit in Grade 6 on the First Peoples, but the only thing I learned from it was that I was an outsider from them, too.
I had felt proud that we were l earning about my heritage, but when one of my non- native classmates told me I was mispronouncing the name of my own people, the Chipewyan, I was embarrassed and ashamed.
I could never be white, but it seemed I wasn’t really Indian, either. Who was I?
I wasn’t aware then that fitting in by trying to be like those around me meant keeping my distance from other native kids or at least never talking about the shameful fact of being native if I was with one.
Yet, the nagging question about who I was and where I belonged stayed with me.
In Grade 8, the only information I could find about the Chipewyan in the school library was a thin pamphlet with a half- page description, since disputed, that said they were fierce and war- loving and abandoned their people who were too sick or frail to travel.
I didn’t want anything to do with those people.
After school one day, my mom told me the social worker had phoned and said I had a sister. I was thrilled and excited to meet her. But it seemed like months went by with no further information. No one told me she lived on a farm about 150 kilometres away.
Then, at a wedding, a family friend said, “Betty Ann, your sister is my cousin, she lives with my auntie. She’s so cute!”
I was devastated. I was hurt and angry. She was supposed to be mine, my sister. I didn’t know the first thing about her but somebody else near me had a relationship with her and considered her a cousin. I left the room in tears. Once again, white people knew more about my people, my own family, than I did.
About two months later, I finally met Rosalie, my 11- year- old little sister who had been taken from our mother at birth. She was the third child to be scooped from her.
It felt like she was the first blood relation I’d ever met. Rosalie and I had the same smile and the same hands. I was finally connected to someone with the same roots as me.
We visited each other’s homes and wrote letters for a few years, but we had no day- to- day life together, no shared experience. Meeting that bubbly little stranger didn’t give me any greater understanding of who I was. She was as disconnected from our origins as I was.
After Rosalie’s f amily moved to Alberta, we lost track of each other for many years.
START WITH A LIST
At 19, I was training as a dental assistant and had a chance to do an internship in Uranium City, the town where I was born. I jumped at it. Going there might help me learn about myself.
I was staying with my supervising dentist. Over dinner, I told her my story. The next day, she showed me a black binder that contained the membership list for nearby Fond du Lac.
We found my mother’s name, Mary Jane Adam, and under it, my name and birthdate and those of my three siblings – Esther, Rosalie and Ben, the youngest and only boy.
It was the first time I had seen my name in the context of the family I came from.
I had no memory of my sister Esther born when I was two. I learned I had a brother.
The list had no information on where any of us lived. I wrote the names and birthdates on a slip of paper. The list ignited a vision, a desire, an intention.
A SLOW ROAD BACK
A few years later, I had a chance meeting on a bus with a Fond du Lac man. We had a long talk and he offered to connect me with my relations. I accepted, but with trepidation.
As much as I wanted to find out who I was, I had lived my whole life afraid of “Indians.” I had managed by fitting into the white world. It would take me many, many years to truly see myself as an indigenous person.
Not long after, I received a call from Archie, a man who called me “Cousin.” I learn- ed that there were people who remembered me, who claimed me.
Archie said his mother and our grandfather had often mentioned my siblings and me, wondering where we were. My mother had gone south years earlier and no one knew where she was.
Archie said our grandfather was getting old and wanted to see me before he died. I balked. I was nervous about stepping across the chasm between the world I’d grown up in and the one I was born to.
I met many of my cousins when they visited the city. One of them called me in 1985, saying the Salvation Army had helped him locate my mother. She was living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and he had an address.
I wrote to her and she replied. I wanted to connect but I was leery of getting too close.
I finally gathered the courage to visit my grandfather in 1986, just months before he died.
Going to one of Saskatchewan’s northernmost reserves, before the Internet or even cable TV, was like travelling to another country. It was startling to be in the majority, among black-haired people who looked like me. Everybody spoke Dene, as I’d learned to call our people. They tried to speak English when I was in the room, a fact that reminded me I was different.
My grandfather, Ben Adam, was 84, bent and white- haired. My cousins translated his words for me. I was overwhelmed at having a grandfather who was really mine. I was hungry to be a granddaughter, but I felt greedy for asking too many questions.
I sometimes had the sense I behaved differently than others, as if there were unspoken expectations that I didn’t know about.
But my relations welcomed me unreservedly as family and treated me with a kindness and generosity that was humbling.
My cousin Billy, with a proud and happy smile, stepped into the middle of the living room one afternoon and held out to me a pair of mukluks made for him by his mother. The hand-tanned caribou hide smelled of wood smoke, the beaver fur was thick and glossy and the floral beadwork was the product of an expert hand.
I felt unworthy of such a precious gift.
I realized my indigenous identity had felt like a shadow that followed me and that I had feared all my life. When I stopped running and turned to meet it, I saw a friend. I saw my family. I saw myself.
My r elationship with my mother evolved slowly, through occasional letters, cards and phone calls.
In 1991, she visited me in Saskatoon on her first trip back to Saskatchewan in many years. The day she was to arrive, I ate at a Chinese restaurant where my fortune cookie read: “You will soon receive something you have always wanted.”
In those awkward first days together, I showed her the fortune. She read it and looked at me for a few moments before saying, “Do you mean me?” All I could do was nod. It was too close to the child’s big questions that could only sound accusatory: Why did you let me go? Didn’t you want me? How could you let this happen?
I didn’t want to judge her. I knew there were no simple answers.
I asked careful questions about my origins and my siblings. She tried to answer them, but there were limits to what she would say. It was clearly painful for her to talk about what happened.
We stayed in touch and visited occasionally. She l oved Zane Grey novels, Scrabble and Bingo. She laughed often.
My mother didn’t answer questions about residential school, other than to say it’s where she learned to knit. She sent my daughter and me many pairs of hand-knit socks.
My mother and Rosalie never connected. I tried to locate Esther and Ben, but it was an emotionally taxing job that required filling out forms with questions I couldn’t answer. The government wouldn’t give information about foster children to siblings. Our mother was the only person who might receive such information, but I never completed the process of ordering forms to mail to her to sign and send back.
In 2006, I got a call from St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. My mother was in the intensive care unit in septic shock. I was stunned and frightened. Should I go?
When I got there, she was on a breathing tube, her eyes closed. She was thin and frail. But when I spoke to her she was able to squeeze my hand and she squeezed it again when I sang Amazing Grace.
Her longtime companion Joe and I were with her when she died. She was 72.
After she died, I met people who knew my mother, like her neighbours and social worker. Her doctor said many of her patients with hard lives had become bitter. That didn’t happen to my mother. She accepted her circumstances with grace. She laughed a lot and had meaningful friendships.
I thought about my fear of getting too close to her. I’d been afraid that she would need more than I could give her. Now I regret not having given more of myself, especially when I think about how she didn’t get to raise her children.
There was a statuette in her room of an Indian mother holding a baby. She never got to be that mother.
They flew my mother’s body back to Prince Albert. From there, Rosalie and I, our two daughters, Joe and a few cousins flew in a small chartered plane, with our mother’s casket between the seats, as we made a pilgrimage to our homeland.
We were doing right by our mother, but it was too little, too late.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MY MOTHER EVOLVED SLOWLY.
Three generations: Betty Ann Adam, her daughter, and Betty Ann’s birth mother, Mary Jane Adam.