Saskatoon StarPhoenix


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.

- The documentar­y, Birth of a Family, is a production of the National Film Board of Canada, written by Tasha Hubbard and Betty Ann Adam, directed by Tasha Hubbard and produced by Bonnie Thompson. Birth of a Family will have its world pr

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.

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.


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 family 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 learning 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 family moved to Alberta, we lost track of each other for many years.


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 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 learned 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 relationsh­ip 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 loved 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 home 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.

I’d never gone there with her while she lived.

There was a wake, with neighbours and relations who sat up all night, praying, singing hymns in Dene, visiting and eating.

There was a Catholic funeral. We buried her beside her mother, near the graves of her siblings who had died in childhood.

How many residentia­l schoolchil­dren, I wondered, were deprived of family life and then, as adults, were denied the experience of parenthood?


In 2007, residentia­l school survivors, or the families of those who had recently died, became eligible to receive the Common Experience Payment (CEP) as part of a multibilli­on-dollar settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by survivors against the government and the churches that ran the schools.

I had misgivings about applying for the money. Would claiming it mean I was selling out? How could money ever compensate for what my mother had lost, or for what my missing siblings and I had never known?

The next year, as required in the settlement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons for the wrongs committed by the schools and to the communitie­s whose children were taken. I felt that apology wouldn’t mean anything if nothing changed. I felt a deep resentment. I would get that money and use it for what it was meant for.

I applied for the payment on my mother’s behalf and searched again for Esther and Ben.

When I submitted a Freedom of Informatio­n request to Indian Affairs seeking help to find them, the reply was a classic catch-22.

A form letter told me I’d have to provide permission from my siblings before the government would release informatio­n on how to find them. It was a ludicrous example of the government’s disrespect for indigenous people. It seemed to me they weren’t in any hurry to undo the damage of the residentia­l schools and the Sixties Scoop.

The government’s stated intention with the residentia­l schools was to “remove the Indian from the child,” by removing them from their parents and having them educated by white Christians. Children at the schools were taught that Indians were inferior to white people and many were told their languages and beliefs were evil.

For more than 100 years, generation­s of children spent years in the schools without being nurtured by their parents. Social breakdown, alcohol abuse and poverty were the legacies of the schools that devastated many indigenous communitie­s.

The idea that our mother may have believed it was better to live in the non-native world suggests a reason why she never moved back to the reserve, and why our fathers were non-native.

Little did she know that the government’s project of assimilati­ng Indians was accelerati­ng at the waning of the residentia­l school era in the late 1950s. By permanentl­y removing indigenous children — especially from single mothers suffering the consequenc­es of negative government policies — this would reduce the likelihood they would grow up with indigenous identities. The 20,000 children of the so-called Sixties Scoop were made part of white families.

It took years, but I tracked down Ben in Edmonton and then Esther in Southern California using word of mouth and the post-adoption registry. Both of them had been adopted. Neither was aware they had siblings looking for them. We discovered that when I was placed at the farm, Esther’s foster family was in the process of adopting her, just 24 kilometres away in Prince Albert. They moved to California that year.


Connecting with the last missing members of my family was a joyful relief, but the enormity of what we’d lost hit me hard. It caused a fundamenta­l shift in the way I saw the world.

More than ever before, I understood myself to be an indigenous person in Canada. I realized that the broad outline of my life had been shaped by government policies. The weight of injustices against indigenous people, current and historical, crashed down on me.

The Winnipeg murder of young Tina Fontaine felt as personal as if she’d been my sister. Cindy Blackstock’s decade of fighting the government’s discrimina­tory child welfare funding resonated. The Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission’s years of uncovering abuses — even torture — at residentia­l schools slammed me. Courts and prisons too populated with our people sickened me.


Amid that emotional turmoil, I was heartened by a talk given on April 1, 2015, by Commission­er Marie Wilson of the TRC. She told a Saskatoon audience about the commission’s findings and its upcoming closing ceremonies. She called on us all to work toward reconcilia­tion.

I approached her afterwards and told her about my mother, my newfound siblings and our anticipate­d first gathering. It would not be a reunion – we had never been all together.

“Who’s going to document it?” was Marie’s immediate response. Others could learn from it. It could prompt others to seek their families.

You could say I felt called to action.

I sought advice from filmmaker Tasha Hubbard on how to tell the story myself but I soon realized there was too much I didn’t know about making a documentar­y.

Tasha approached the National Film Board with the idea and I was relieved and delighted when she offered, on their advice, to take on the project.

I trusted her completely because of her body of work and because her experience as an indigenous adoptee gave her insight into our experience.

The film shoot came together unusually quickly. Just four months after my first discussion with Tasha, she was filming us at our homes. A week later, the crew documented our gathering in Calgary on Sept. 16, 2015.

In an airport terminal, we huddled in a group hug, laughing and crying, beginning to fuse our lives.

Esther, Rosalie, Ben and I piled into a rented vehicle and a film crew followed us to Banff, where we spent a week together as a family.

On the mantel, we propped a charcoal portrait of our mother, which she had given me. In it, she looks off into the distance. Beside it, we placed a photograph of the statuette of the Indian mother holding her baby and looking defiantly straight ahead.

My siblings took the filming in stride. It was one more remarkable twist to this unexpected circumstan­ce of suddenly finding themselves part of a new family.

The making of this film gave the birth of our family an auspicious beginning.

We gathered again in June 2016 and in April 2017 we were together with Tasha as my siblings watched the film for the first time.

We stay in touch. We talk on the phone and chat on Facebook. We all feel committed to these relationsh­ips and to building memories together.

We are intergener­ational survivors of the Indian Residentia­l Schools and children of the Sixties Scoop. We were raised without our language and without understand­ing the worldview of our people. We navigate mainstream Canadian society, yet yearn for our place in the circle with our people. The journey back is long. Many of us will never really get there.

It’s been said there are more indigenous children in foster care now than there were students at the height of the residentia­l schools.

Canada’s project of assimilati­on and the resulting cultural genocide continues. The only way it will ever end is if politician­s believe that Canadians give a damn and tell them to stop discrimina­tory child welfare underfundi­ng so communitie­s can develop supports to heal families and keep them together.

 ?? SUPPLIED ?? Three generation­s: Betty Ann Adam, her daughter, Lucia, and Betty Ann’s birth mother, Mary Jane Adam.
SUPPLIED Three generation­s: Betty Ann Adam, her daughter, Lucia, and Betty Ann’s birth mother, Mary Jane Adam.
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 ?? SUPPLIED ?? Esther, from left, Rosalie, Betty Ann and Ben meet in Banff for the first time as a family to begin building relationsh­ips and memories.
SUPPLIED Esther, from left, Rosalie, Betty Ann and Ben meet in Banff for the first time as a family to begin building relationsh­ips and memories.
 ?? SUPPLIED ?? Esther, from left, Rosalie, Betty Ann and Ben meet in Banff for the first time as a family to begin building relationsh­ips and memories.
SUPPLIED Esther, from left, Rosalie, Betty Ann and Ben meet in Banff for the first time as a family to begin building relationsh­ips and memories.
 ?? MEDIASPACE.NFB.CA ?? The siblings, together for the first time, take a picture with a charcoal drawing of their mother in the background.
MEDIASPACE.NFB.CA The siblings, together for the first time, take a picture with a charcoal drawing of their mother in the background.
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