Betty Ann Adam was just three years old when her life changed forever. Uprooted from her Dene mother’s care in Uranium City, Saskatchewan and placed in foster care in Prince Albert, Adam was left far from her family, her culture and her people of Fond du Lac Dene Nation.
Now, decades later, Adam is bringing her story, one she shares with 20,000 other Indigenous people whose families were torn apart during the Sixties Scoop, to audiences in Yellowknife with a one night screening of “Birth of a Family,” Thursday.
The film, by Saskatchewan-director Tasha Hubbard, documents Adam and her three siblings – all of whom were displaced across the continent during sweeping relocations at the hands of child welfare authorities – as they all reconnect under one roof for the first time in an attempt to retrace and reclaim their intertwined pasts.
Growing up under foster care in a predominantly white area, Adam told Yellowknifer she often wondered who she was. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a sister and a later trip to Fond du Lac Dene Nation at the age of 19, that Adam began to piece together an answer to her own question.
“I got to see the band list and saw the names of my brother and sister. I wrote down their names and birth dates, and thought – someday,” Adam recalled.
Some day came to be. After sharing her experience with Marie Wilson, one of three former commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the former journalist and researcher of forced residential schooling immediately asked, “who’s documenting it?”
The question set in motion a series of events that would eventually see the National Film Board sign on to produce the film. Crews travelled to Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and as far as California to follow the lives of Adam, her sisters Esther and Rosalie and her brother Ben in a lead-up to the cumulative meeting of all four family members.
When the decades-in-the-making meeting finally took place during the doc’s production in 2015, Adam said a whirlwind of emotions accompanied a “moment of finding” after years of searching.
“It was extremely satisfying, joyful – and it was a relief to have them all there,” Adam said.
Adam said her family’s collective decision to invite cameras along for their journey came down to the importance of educating the public.
“Before we can reconcile we need to understand where the imbalances lie,” she said, adding that her family’s undertaking of the documentary was their “exercise in reconciliation.”
Behind the scenes of Thursday’s screening is a group of co-sponsors, driven by the same desire to foster awareness in the hopes of achieving reconciliation.
Representatives from Yellowknife United Church, Law Society of the Northwest Territories, the NWT Native Women’s Association and the Canadian Bar Association (NWT Branch) have come together on an ad-hoc basis to present “Birth of a Family” at Northern United Place.
According to organizer and lawyer Karen Wilford, a member of both the Yellowknife United Church and the CBA-NT, the collective collaboration between all four of the community organizations reflects the far reach of the film’s subject matter.
“It was really striking to me the way this film intersected a number of different areas…there are legal issues, there are child protection issues, cultural issues…,” Wilford told Yellowknifer.
According to Wilford, Thursday’s screening is part of a concerted effort to come to terms with the dark chapter in Canadian history. It’s also, she said, a step forward in repairing the damages caused by the uprooting of Indigenous culture and identity.
“Reconciliation is not just the job of government – it’s the job of everyone, ” Wilford said, adding that onus is placed on individuals, families and community-based organizations, like those sponsoring the event, to face up unflinchingly to past grievances – in ways that go beyond public apologies and policy announcements.
Following the screening, a discussion panel will be hosted by Marie Wilson and is intended to focus on the impact of the Sixties Scoop on children and adults, as well as what can be done to reclaim lost culture looking ahead.
“We ultimately hope that there is some optimism that comes out of this discussion in terms of what we’ve learned,” Wilford said, adding that by reflecting on the past, a path to reconciliation and “doing better” can be forged.
Adam echoed Wilford’s optimism.
“I hope people will be moved by it and will reflect on it – take it to work with them tomorrow,” she said.
The free screening starts begins at 6:30 p.m. and wraps up at 9 p.m. Melaw Nakehk’o, a community leader in cultural revitalization, lawyer Caroline Wawzonek and Susan Fitzky, social worker and educator, will join both Adam and Wilford during the panel discussion.