In this piece, Adam North Peigan discusses his experiences as a child in foster care in Southern Alberta, his journey home, and his advocacy work on behalf of Sixties Scoop Survivors.
Nitsiniiyi'taki, Adam, for sharing your experiences and triumphs with us, and taking us to places that have been an important part of your life.
Special thanks to Herman Many Guns and Quinton Crow Shoe.
Warning: This testimony contains descriptions that other child welfare system survivors may find emotionally triggering.
Filmed on June 7, 2019 in Piikani First Nation on Treaty 7 territory, in Alberta.
Cinematographer – Kaayla Whachell
Series Editor – Madison Thomas
Colour – Benoît Côté + Outpost MTL
Sound mix – SeratoneStudios
Illustrations – Natasha Donovan
And these are all of our past Chiefs that have served our community. This is Chief Stanley Grier, Chief Reg Crowshoe, Chief Peter Strikes the Gun. This is my cousin here, Philip Big Swan. So, this is a picture of myself, when I was in leadership in the early 2000s. And I completed my term in 2011. It’s something that I will never forget. This is my older sister, Harriet. She’s the oldest sibling within my family. She was part of the Sixties Scoop as well.
What had happened is that they amended the Indian Act in 1951 to offload the responsibility of Indigenous Child and Family services to the provinces. The provinces were basically that you need to go out and forcibly remove Indigenous children from their homes and put them in non-Indigenous foster homes and adoptions as part of the assimilation process. It was just an extension of the residential school.
When we were removed, it was my sister that actually stepped in and basically took over the parenting role.
Oki niitaniko Adam North Peigan. I’m actually a Sixties Scoop survivor. I was removed and taken away from this community, my home community, as an infant. I was moved to numerous non-Indigenous foster homes and children shelters right from the time I was an infant right until the time I aged out of child welfare.
This is the homestead of where that day happened. I don’t have any memories of that day because I was an infant, but my older sister, who is nine years older than me has memories of that day. And what she tells me is that it was a very confusing day because she was told by Alberta Social Services workers to get “All your little brothers and sisters and get them rounded up, and we’re going to go for drive.” And the next thing, you know, we were all taken away in different vehicles. We were all placed in non-Indigenous foster homes and children shelters all over southern Alberta in complete isolation. We weren’t there with any of our other siblings. We were just there by ourselves.
I think when I was about 14, my foster parents told me that my mother was looking for me. She wanted to meet me for the very first time. They asked me if I’d be okay with that and I said, “Yes.” I was kind of going along with it. So, I remember that time when we went to Alberta child welfare in Lethbridge. I went with my foster father and we were sitting in a large empty room. I remember as a little boy feeling how scared I was. I was just trembling and shaking because I was so scared. The next thing I know, the door opened, and a large Indigenous woman walked in. She came over and said, “Hi Adam, my name is Catharine and I’m your mother.” She gave me a hug and I gave her a hug. But at that time - I had learned quite quickly, how to shut down my feelings. I remember that I don’t think I felt very much that day because I had learned how to shut down my feelings as a coping mechanism to deal with all the trauma and abuse that I suffered while I was in care.
Loss of identity was very prominent. I remember as a child growing up and being in a foster home and being ashamed of who I was. Being ashamed of the colour of skin that I was. During that time, I never had any concept of what my home community was. I didn’t know where I was from. I didn’t who my family was. I guess the biggest thing I experienced was abandonment – being removed and taken away from my community. Loss of language was another thing. Up to this day, I still don’t know my traditional language, which is Blackfoot.
Just before I turned 18, I was sent home to my community here. When I came home, I experienced culture shock like you cannot imagine because I had adapted to living in white homes my whole life. All of a sudden getting parachuted into the middle of my community, it was like a warzone. Because I saw a lot of things that I had never seen before in my life. Like a lot of drinking, a lot of drug abuse, family violence, domestic violence. The housing conditions were deplorable. And that’s what I came home to. For me, coming home, even though it should have been a place of excitement and enthusiasm because I was coming home, it wasn’t. I was very scared throughout the whole process. When I did come home, I used to get teased by some of the members of my nation. I used to get called an “apple”. You know, red on the outside and white on the inside. I didn’t feel like I was welcome, and I didn’t know where I belonged. The lack of stability – it all flourished and started to drink quite heavily. I drank heavily as a coping mechanism. Part of that was for acceptance as well – to be accepted by my own people. Because that’s what I saw. So, that’s what I did. It led me down a life of 15 to 20 years of heavy drinking, day in, day out.
What led me to sobriety and a journey of wellness in my life was - in 1994, I had moved out to Vancouver and I was on the streets of East Hastings. I moved out there with the woman I was with at that time and the mother of my two oldest daughters. What had happened was because of my heavy drinking, my two oldest daughters got apprehended by B.C. Children’s services. And they got put into a white foster home. They were in care and I was getting access and visiting them. But the length of time that they were in care was getting long. Just before they were in care for 18 months, the child welfare worker came and told me that if I didn’t do something about my drinking, I was going to lose my kids and they were going to become permanent wards of the province of B.C. It was at that point where I really decided that I needed to do something about my life because I didn’t want my kids to go through what I had experienced. So, I sobered up and went to a treatment centre in B.C. And I’ve been walking that wellness road ever since that time.
As I sobered up and as I started to come home to my community, and I was going to see the Elders and I was getting back into our ceremonies, I talked to my mother. We started to talk about what had happened and I started to talk about that resentment and that hurt and that anger that I had toward her. My mother shared with me about the atrocities and the trauma that she had to face going to residential school. When I began to listen to her stories, it helped me to be able to understand that she had her own problems and issues that she was dealing with as a result of residential school. And it helped be to be able to deal with my anger and my frustration. At the end of the day, my mother and I, we developed a very good mother and son relationship up until the time she passed away.
I am so lucky that I am sitting here today leading the charge for reconciliation for the Indigenous people in Alberta and Canada with respect to the Sixties Scoop because there are numerous times where I could have actually gone to the spirit world through suicide attempts and alcoholism and drug abuse. But I survived.
I know my kids have come into the Council Chambers and they’ve looked at the portraits on the walls. When they came across my picture… for my kids, for my daughters, when they saw it, it was a very proud moment for them. To know that their dad who had suffered the atrocities of the Sixties Scoop is part of the leadership. And I’m very proud of who I am today. I am very proud of where I come from. I’m very proud to be Indigenous. But at the same time, there are a lot of Sixties Scoop survivors that are about my age that haven’t found their way home yet. Some of us have not come as far as others. And I know today that there are a lot of Sixties Scoop survivors that are in jails, in custody. There are a lot of our survivors in the urban city that are still suffering with addictions. They’re looking for something; they’re looking for a place that they can call home.
I firmly believe that mountains can be moved. We can move mountains because we’ve been able to work with the Government of Alberta to for the issuance of an official apology that happened on May 28, 2018 from the Alberta Government to all Sixties Scoop survivors in the province of Alberta. That was a very historic day, not only for the Indigenous people, but for all Albertans. That day marked truth and reconciliation for our people in the province of Alberta. I was so happy to be a part of that. A lot of work that we’ve been doing since the apology is post-apology activities; creating public awareness, bringing our survivors together, creating a safe environment for them to start sharing their stories.
Today is a day of celebration. Today is a day of homecoming for me because today I can honestly say as an Indigenous man in Canada, I can say that today I do have a home. And even though I’ve lived off reserve for quite a few years of my life, when someone asks me, “Where are you from? Where is your home?” I always tell them that my home is the Piikani First Nation. That’s where I come from.