Witnessing the birth of a family

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(From left) Esther, Rose, Betty Ann and Ben were taken from their Dene mother as babies as part of Canada’s “Sixties Scoop.” They met for the first time in 2015, 50 years after being torn apart. Photo: National Film Board

Family… Connections… At the heart of those ideas is our sense of self-identity, our very state of being: for we are, in some ways, defined by those to whom we are most closely connected. And, for most of us, what closer connections do we have than those that bind us for life to our family? Our family is the well-spring of our roots, our history, and very often our fundamental character, as well as the first and most enduring expression of our God-given mission to love our fellow mortals. But what if you have been sundered from your family, unaware that you even have siblings?  That’s the subject of the National Film Board documentary Birth of a Family, directed by Tasha Hubbard, which was broadcast in abbreviated form on CBC in November 2017.

The film follows a few days in the lives of Betty Ann, Esther, Rosalie and Ben, who were taken from their Dene mother as babies (or, in one case, as a very young child) as part of Canada’s “Sixties Scoop,” which took an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children and placed them with white families. In this case, they were dispersed across multiple provinces and two countries: “We were never given a choice. We were never asked, ‘Do you want to be separated?’ ”

They are middle-aged now, and they’ve had good lives with their adoptive families. “I was raised in a good and decent home. And I’ve had many people say to me, ‘Well, you were lucky.’ ” At one time, that proposition might have elicited an affirmative response from the adoptees themselves. But there was also a gnawing sense of something missing: “I always imagined that if I met my real family that I’d get something that I didn’t have.”

Fifty years after they were parted, the siblings meet for the first time at Banff National Park. The overwhelming beauty of that place is an apt setting for the powerful emotions they experience. There are long talks, shared tears, group hugs, sharing of childhood photos and a birthday cake to make up for the “211 birthdays we’ve missed.” A visit to a First Nations’ interpretative centre leaves one of them in tears, suddenly aware of her lost cultural roots. Discussing their late mother, the siblings note that she had been wrenched away from her family and sent to a residential school. She never returned to a Native community after that. Was it because she’d been inculcated with a feeling of being “inferior” to whites, or was she resentful at her community for allowing her to be taken away? One issue that is never addressed is the reason for the siblings being removed from their mother in the first place. Yes, it was part of a culturally-biased program, implicitly (and presumptuously) designed to purge them of their “Nativeness”; but, was their mother deemed to be unfit to care for them? And, if so, was such an apprehension about her fitness justified?

The quietly affecting bonding among these reunited siblings makes us feel a warm connection to them. Their story is not one of recriminations and bitterness. There is sadness here for what was lost, but also joy at what has been rediscovered: “It’s not a ‘reunion.’ It’s a family union.” And that’s an irresistibly heartwarming story.

Note: Birth of a Family can be seen here.

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John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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