Between 1955 and 1985, more than 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their mothers and placed inside the child-welfare system. The devastation and trauma resulting from what came to be known as the “Sixties Scoop” is incalculable, although the story isn’t entirely without a happy ending—or four. In the NFB’s Birth of a Family, we’re introduced to three sisters and one brother, all in their 50s, who gather together for the first time during a weeklong trip to Banff. Betty Ann Adam calls it “the best-ever vacation/photo album anybody ever had”.
“All four of us were fortunate in that we were all placed, some of us immediately, some of us eventually, in stable homes that made us part of their families,” she tells the Straight in a call from Saskatoon. But this wasn’t the case for many, and Betty Ann further acknowledges that her own family summit pivots, with often gutting effect for the viewer, between joy and grief. (This movie is a weeper, for sure.) “Certainly, we’re all aware, as [brother] Ben expressed very poignantly, that we missed a lot,” she says.
Betty Ann is a journalist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, and it was her tireless and yearslong dedication to the endeavour that finally got everyone into the same room together, presided over by a portrait of their mother, Mary Jane, that hangs on the hotel-room wall. (There have been two more reunions since, the most recent in Southern California, where Esther lives.) Betty Ann calls it an effort “to lead my siblings home”, or to connect with a Dene heritage that all four of them lost through assimilation. A visit with an elder is particularly affecting, while the group’s easy humour and affection with each other suggest the survival of an almost preternatural bond. (Their joint 212th birthday celebration is especially cute.)
Of the four, Betty Ann, the eldest, was the only one to spend any time with their mother, who was living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when they finally met in the early ’90s, and whose defining quality, she says, was grace.
“It was almost as if she didn’t want to burden me by telling me the things that had been difficult in her life,” Betty Ann recalls. “She accepted the circumstances of her life and bloomed where she was planted. She preferred to focus on the positive, and I see that so much, especially in [sister] Rosalie. She’s unstoppable that way.”
Meanwhile, the darker aspects of the story don’t go unacknowledged. In one key moment, Esther confides to Betty Ann that she’s grappling with an inability to forgive.
“I think a lot of kids who were adopted wonder, ‘Why did our parents let us go?’ ” she says. “And if I seem diplomatic, what I was trying to explain was that these were unilateral government policies imposed upon Indigenous people. These are acts of oppression on our people. It just demonstrated how little information was given to Indigenous people who were separated from their culture and family through this practice.” In this moment, Birth of a Family speaks for all the children of the Scoop.
Birth of a Family screens as part of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s KDocs Documentary Film Festival at the Vancity Theatre, on Saturday (February 17). Postfilm events are planned for a number of the titles coming to the justice-oriented fest, covering topics that include the global arms business (Shadow World), workers’ rights (Dolores), food activism (Modified), housing (Vancouver: No Fixed Address), and the West’s covert role in terrorism (Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS), while an opening-night program called Sustainable Futures offers three short docs on the subject of extreme resource extraction.
The KDocs Documentary Film Festival runs at the Vancity Theatre from Thursday to Sunday (February 15 to 18). More information is at www.viff.org/.