APTN National News
The walls of Nakuset’s home are mostly devoted to her children.
Walking down the hallway, she passes drawings and merit awards from elementary school before stopping at an enlarged photo.
Shot in 70s washed hues, is a toddler in a pink dress, squinting at the camera as if trying to divine its purpose.
“This is part of the 60s scoop,” said Nakuset who is now 46. “This is what they did. They took pictures of Indigenous children and put them into catalogues and then sent them all over the country.”
She would know. Nakuset is the three year old girl in the photo.
“They would go into the communities and they would take children and say, ‘oh you don’t have any running water?We’re going to take your children. You have an outhouse? We’re going to take your children? You don’t have a fridge?’” she told APTN, anger rising to the surface. “If you’re deemed as poor, they would take your children.”
Nakuset pauses to ponder the photo some more.
“I’m not sure why they decided to adopt me, because I think I was kind of funny looking, but I guess they saw something cute in me and they said ‘send her over,’” she said. “So the next day I was on a plane from Manitoba to Montreal.”
“My older sister Sonya says she looked after me, but one day she woke up and I was gone”
Nakuset’s records show that her birth mother was abusive, and she said that in many ways it was for the best that she was taken away.
But she said she resents that she was separated from her siblings for decades.
“My older sister Sonya says she looked after me, but one day she woke up and I was gone.”
Nakuset is not the name she was born with, or even the name her adoptive parents gave her.
It means “the sun” and in her 20s it was given to Nakuset by a Mi’gmaq elder. She took it on not just as an act of pride, but of protest.
“The social workers said to the parents, don’t tell them that they’re Native, don’t tell them where they come from, don’t tell them about their roots, this is the best practice,” she said.
Nakuset said her parents took that advice to heart.
“They told me to tell people that I was Israeli,” she said of her Jewish adoptive parents “They could never understand why I wanted reconnect with my roots.”
Nakuset said eventually she broke off all connection with her adoptive parents after finding that they were withholding letters from her biological older sister.
She’s been on a quest to rediscover her Cree heritage to this day.
“I feel like all these things I’m supposed to know, I don’t know,” said Nakuset as her voice breaks for a moment. “I wasn’t brought up that way, I don’t know how to …,” she says, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “Okay now you’re an Indian. Now you’re gonna go back, you’re gonna go live off the land your gonna know your culture you’re gonna sing the songs, your gonna speak your language, you’re gonna bead, you’re gonna do all of these things (and) I don’t know any of it.”
It can be argued that Nakuset has more than made up for it.
She’s currently the president of the Montreal Native Women’s shelter and an advocate for Indigenous services and rights as the co-chair for the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network.
Still, the effects of being a part of the 60s scoop linger.
“As much as I have this persona for being successful in work, I find that interpersonal relationships are very difficult for me,” she said.
Watching Nina Segalowitz throat sing is to witness a feat of endurance.
Be it husky breathing or urgent high notes she pushes her breathing longer than most lungs can bear.
But for the longest time, Segalowitz had no one to throat sing with.
The part Dene, part Inuit woman didn’t meet another Indigenous person until she visited Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre for the first time at the age of 18.
“It was the most emotional day,” she said. “I remember her face, and she smiled at me and I just started crying…because for the first time, there was a woman who could possibly be my aunt. I knew that she was Inuit because I recognized her and it was a very healing moment for me and from then on I was just a sponge.”
Segalowitz is now the president of the Montreal Native Friendship Centre. She has an excellent relationship with her adoptive family.
Her adopted parents even travelled to Fort Smith, NWT to meet with her biological father after Segalowitz found him.
“My parents showed him [her birth father] picture books of me when I was growing up, he just cried. He was so thankful for my parents…” said Segalowitz, looking off to the distance before collecting herself and exhaling. “He said ‘thank you for taking care of my little girl.’”
Segalowitz said that part of what made the meeting so difficult is that her birth parents had never intended to give her up.
“I had an ear infection and so they brought me there [the hospital] to get treated, and the doctors and the nurses that helped me for the admission they made my parents sign papers,” she said. “And because my parents had gone to residential school they didn’t really know what they were signing. So the next day when my parents went back to the hospital to get me, I was gone, and that what they actually had signed was adoption papers.”
Segalowitz’s birth mother died before they could meet, but from what Segalowitz heard, she was devastated losing her daughter.
“My parents couldn’t get to me. The doctors said that they would never find me, [that] they had no right to me because they were unfit parents,” said Segalowitz. “So for days after that, for weeks and weeks my mom would go to the hospital and try to get me back and they kept refusing her, telling her she would never see me again.”
Despite a happy upbringing, Segalowitz laments the day she was taken.
“Myself, along with a lot of other Native adoptees, have always felt disconnected. We lost so much, we didn’t grow up with our brothers and sisters we didn’t grow up with our aunties and uncles, we didn’t grow up with our language and that was taken away from us, in the name of modernizing Indians and colonizing us and we lost all of that. I’ve never gone hunting, I’ve never lived on the land because the government decided it would better for me to grow up in a non-Native home,” she said.
For Segalowitz, last week’s (link please) 60s Scoop ruling in Ontario court has set more than one precedent.
“That’s where the healing starts, it’s good to be acknowledged,” she said. “And it gives us a strong foundation to do our own class-action suit.”
But lawyers aren’t so sure.
Lawyer David Schulze specializes in Aboriginal law at Montreal’s Dionne Schulze law firm. He opines that going after the provinces is a harder case to make and will make for a more drawn out court battle.
“You can expect them [the provinces] to raise limitations issues, which the federal government doesn’t seem to be raising,” he said. “I mean, this happened a long time ago and there are certain kinds of cases where we don’t enforce limitations periods, generally with respect to sexual abuse, but you can expect either the provinces or [adoption] agencies’ lawyers might say, ‘well just because the federal government is not raising limitations issues doesn’t mean that we’re not going to raise it’. ”
For her part, Nakuset has been approached by an international law firm to be the potential face of a Québec-based class-action suit against the federal government, but she isn’t sure she has the stomach for lengthy legal skirmishes.
Already she found last week’s ruling in Ontario to be emotionally draining.
“The moment that the court said ‘yes, you were mistreated’ I was like ‘oh….wow, like validation’,” she said. “But for me it takes me back to every negative thing that you just kind of absorb, it all came back like whoosh, like everything just came forward.”
Still, not all the things from her past that have emerged are negative. Last year, Nakuset and her older biological sister Sonya were reunited with their Austrian-raised youngest sister, Rose Mary. They all hope to physically meet for the first time since being scooped this summer.
“She writes me almost every day,” Nakuset said. “And I send her a necklace and earrings and I sent her a medicine bag, and A Tribe Called Red album, and just try to like infuse her with Native stuff, because obviously she’s not going to get anything authentic in Austria.”
The concept of authenticity is something that Nakuset has struggled with in the past but she said she’s at a place in her life where she now feels comfortable.
She looks forward to making up for lost time and discovering even more about her Cree heritage with her sisters…something she’ll do with or without a 60s scoop settlement.