Brandi Morin, APTN National News
Dave Herman still remembers the day he was taken from his mother.
Even at the age of 44, the details of that day are as clear as when it happened four decades ago.
“I remember my mom just grabbed my arm and ran out the door of this house in Vancouver,” recalled Herman. “And she’s crying, dragging me with her arm. We were going down an old pathway with picket fences.
“Then I could see up the hill there were cops going by. The next thing I remember, I’m in the arms of a police officer and I remember my mom was being driven off in the back of a little white station wagon. I asked the police officer ‘what’s going on? Where are you taking my mommy?’ They said they’re taking her to get help, ‘she’s sick’.”
It would be another 18 years before he saw his mother again. After a brief stay in a foster home and then children’s home Herman was adopted into a Caucasian family living in Vancouver.
Herman said he grew up knowing he was Indigenous but had no idea what that meant.
His adoptive family was good to him, he said. They were a nice, loving family.
Then in his later teens, Herman became obsessed with learning about his Indigenous background after his parents took him to a pow wow.
“I remember being overwhelmed and almost crying,” said Herman. “I felt shafted. Like, wow, I was denied this. I was angry and sad and happy all at the same time. I said to myself that next year I’m gonna sing there. I don’t know how but I’m going to sing and then I’m going to dance. Then I got the bug.”
He spent the next few years reconnecting with his lost culture following the pow wow trail and then reunited with his biological mother at age 22.
He was proud to learn his mother belonged to the Whitefish First Nation in Alberta.
He had so many dreams about her over the years but was painfully disappointed when they met. She wasn’t the woman he remembered before he had been taken away.
“I didn’t really recognize her. Before, she wasn’t a broken person yet, but when I saw her again she was a broken person,” said Herman. “There were 11 of us (kids) and we all got taken away. I don’t think they
(child services) ever gave her a chance. I think when her kids got taken away she went and made another kid to replace that kid.”
His mother ended up drinking her sorrows away and died in an east side motel room in Vancouver in 2015. He never did meet his father, whom he’s heard is still alive and living somewhere near Vancouver.
Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about what could’ve been.
“Anybody who’s adopted thinks that,” he said.
But it’s the government’s targeting of Indigenous families and children that has him upset.
“It angers me how they target us at every aspect. They targeted every aspect of our being…They broke us,” he said.
The recent 60s Scoop case win in Ontario has him thinking about getting involved in a class action lawsuit even though he said money won’t fix anything.
On Feb 15 in Toronto, Justice Edward Belababa ruled that Canada failed in its fidicuary duty to protect the cultural identity of the thousands of children caught up in the 60s Scoop in Ontario. The survivors were asking for $1.3 billion in damages.
“We gotta hit the white man where it matters most. Money is their God,” he said. “There has to be some kind of acknowledgment or apology too.”
Freda Ballantyne, 38, was born in The Pas, Manitoba and taken from her family when she was a baby.
All she was told was that her parents were alcoholics.
In one document she received later on, her mother is described as: Very dull, very manly looking, only has a grade two education. She’s not very intelligent. Lives a very plain existence.
Adopted out at age four after living with foster families, her experience wasn’t good.
She remembers the day she first met her parents.
“The last thing I remember is getting into my (adoptive) parents green Mercury Montego car with green leather seats in the back and I remember how cold they were. That memory has stuck with me my whole life. I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Ballantyne.
Her father was a Vietnam war vet who suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and her mother dealt with it by isolating herself at home. There was neglect and disconnect.
When she was old enough she set out to find out where she came from. But she was too late. She learned her mother had been murdered about 10 years before and that her father had been killed in a car accident.
That didn’t stop her from going home to The Pas and meeting relatives and her siblings.
“I think our healing starts when we realize we can go back home. My parents told me my mom didn’t want me. I grew up believing these things. When I finally found my family and found out the truth. You want to go back and ask why,” she said.
She learned from a local elder that her mother was well liked and that she was kind and generous. It gave some comfort from the remnants of her broken past that she now holds close to her heart.
She is still searching for her sister who was adopted out somewhere in Québec.
It wasn’t until she was 28 that she met other Indigenous people and started to reconnect with her roots. She now calls Edmonton home and teaches what she knows about her culture to her own children.
She said she holds her children close because the threat of child services showing up at her door to take them always seems to loom.
Ballantyne is working with her Elders to find a way to get registered with the Alberta class action lawsuit against the government as part of a 60s Scoop claim but has mixed feelings about it.
“We’re still in a generation of understanding that this happened to us, coming to terms with it and then finding a path toward healing. When you attach a number to that, it’s like, is that what the value is?”
But she saw value in having resources for healing. A potential judgment and monetary retribution would help with the costs associated with ceremony or education.
“I think with reconciliation on everybody’s mind right now we have to continue to work on braiding our existences together because neither one of them are going away. We have to find a way to make it work,” she said.
Shelley Vanderhoef was taken from her mother at the Vancouver General Hospital right after she was born in 1969.
She later learned from adoptive records that her mother “loved her very much but couldn’t take care of her.”
Vanderhoef said she’s hesitant to speak about her adoptive family saying they were “strict.”
After running away from home at age 17, Vanderhoef began to become involved with various Indigenous associations in Toronto. Soon after learning more about her Indigenous heritage she started to look for her biological family. Her dad was well-known Haida Gwaii artist Patrick Mcguire who had died of a heroin overdose.
But she was thrilled at the chance to meet her mother who was still living in Vancouver.
“It was awesome to meet her,” said Vanderhoef. “We hugged and cried. I felt comfortable calling her mom right away. She called me her ‘baby.’
The two established a relationship until her mother passed away from cancer in 2017.
To this day, however, Vanderhoef carries around a sense of disconnect which she believes stems from the trauma
of being taken from her mother.
But over the years she has undertaken a journey of healing through various measures like journal writing, self-help books and hanging out with supportive people.
She said she’s happy with her life, has forgiven but sees others who are not doing so well.
There’s a whole new generation of survivors, outside of residential school victims, that will take years to remediate.
“At least the children in residential school had a peer group. They knew where they came from, they knew who their parents were and they knew they were going home,” she said.
“We didn’t have that. There’s a really isolating and permanent nature of adoption. Adoptees are out there orbiting around living in pain. A lot of adoptees I spoke to had really bad reunions. Those are the ones still orbiting around in the jails, on the street or with mental health issues.”
She stresses the importance for victims who are struggling to reach out for help and emotional support because it “deeply and profoundly affects people.”
Vanderhoef is registered with the Aboriginal Sixties Scoop class action filed against the Government of Canada on behalf of survivors in B.C.
Class action lawyer David Klein in Vancouver started the litigation five years ago.
The law firm is in talks with the government and hopes to settle out of court by the end of 2017.
There are currently 1,300 people registered with the lawsuit and since last week’s ruling in Ontario, that number is growing.
“In the past week we received between 80 and 100 calls from new people who have just found out about the class action or just getting the courage to come forward now,” said Klein who stressed it’s not about the money.
“Money only takes us so far. What we’re exploring with the Government of Canada is a reconciliation, a healing process, acknowledgment, recognition, and remediation,” he said.
“The stories we’ve heard are of a deep sense of loss and cultural disconnect, of not really knowing who you are or what you’re a part of. A strong longing for something deeper and meaningful because of what was torn away from you as a child.”
Klein said the door is still open for claimants who were adopted out between 1958 and 1996 to register.