In this piece, Lori Campbell discusses her experiences as an adoptee in Saskatchewan and the 25-year process of reconnecting with her family and Cree-Métis identity.
Kinanâskomitin, Lori, for sharing your experiences with us, showing us the many years of correspondence, and for taking us to meet Sunrise, your beautiful horse.
Warning: This testimony contains descriptions that other child welfare system survivors may find triggering.
Filmed on July 30, 2019 in Waterloo, ON, Haldimand Tract.
Cinematographer – Jonathan Elliott
Series Editor - Madison Thomas
Colour – Martin Gaumond + Outpost MTL
Sound mix – Seratone Studios
Illustrations – Natasha Donovan
There's a newspaper called The Western Producer. In that newspaper, there were two things I always looked at: one was the horses for sale because I just absolutely loved and adored horses, but there was also a section called "People Finder", and there was oftentimes this one ad that would run that would say, "Are you adopted and looking for your birth family?" One morning, I was looking at that paper at my auntie's house, at breakfast, and I had kind of set it aside. And I still would have been young, like maybe just early teenager, if that. And my auntie had obviously noticed that I had looked specifically at that ad. And she mentioned after I set the paper down, she said, "You know, if you ever want to find your birth family, I'm happy to help you do that. And I know that's important." But I was still worried and didn't want to feel like I was ungrateful or something, I guess. So, I was like "Oh no, that's okay. That's fine."
Tânisi. Niya Lori Campbell. Niya Two-spirit nēhiyaw āpihtākosisān iskwew. Nikawiy mōniyawi-sākahikanihk, Treaty Six Territory, kīwētinohk kisiskāciwan ohcīw. [Hello, my name is Lori Campbell. I am a Two-spirit, Cree-Métis woman with matrilineal ties tomōniyawi-sākahikanihk, Treaty Six territory in Saskatchewan.] I work out here in Ontario, as the Director of the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre at the University of Waterloo.
So, most people are familiar with the residential school system, which was a process that took Indigenous children, and physically removed them from their homes, and placed them in boarding schools, essentially. After those fell out of favor, it was decided that we should take Indigenous children and actually place them in homes with white families, so that they could learn, in essence, to be white. It started in about the 1950s, really. The government just started taking Indigenous children and removing them from their Indigenous families and adopting them out into white families. Some were adopted in Canada, but many also went overseas. The Sixties Scoop era really lasted well up into the 1980s. And we're kind of moving into something that's actually really more being called "The Millennial Scoop". Because we still have a number of Indigenous children being put in care.
My birth mom was 14 when she had me. And we lived essentially in my grandmother's house. And so, my grandmother was probably the primary caregiver during that time for me and my mom, and the younger siblings. At 14 months old, so 1973, I went into foster care. The reason that the police had come that day was because of violence that was occurring in the home from an unbiologically-related male that was in the house. And my mom tried to defend me, and the police were called, and they came. And they took me out. And my mom thought that they were just taking me until she wasn't angry anymore. But she never saw me again.
So, I was adopted in 1974 to a non-Indigenous family, a mom and a dad. They had a biological son, who was two years older than me. And they were from a rural, Northeast farming community in Saskatchewan. They were looking to adopt a girl who was not in diapers, and who would kind of blend into the family. So, with fairer skin. Essentially, they came to Regina one day. And they met me in the morning, at the foster home. Then they left, and they came back in the afternoon with their son. We went to the park to play. When we got back to the house, everything of mine was packed up in a black garbage bag. And they put me in the car, and we left, and they took me home with them.
According to them, they feel that there was no-follow up after by a social worker. Nobody ever came to see them, to check up on how things were going. At that time, like many of us, we all have sort of expertise in our own fields. So, we rely on people, like medical professionals, lawyers, social workers, who are professionals in their field to provide us guidance and we tend to want to follow that because we think that they're the experts. So, at the time, my parents were told to just take me home, teach me about being Hungarian and Irish, like them, and not to worry about my Indigenous heritage. And that everything would be fine. And that didn't work for me, and it didn't work for a lot of others like me.
Admittedly, I wasn't an easy kid to have around. I think families were very ill-prepared by the social workers, and by how they were led by the government to think that they were doing the right thing, and the benevolent thing and helping us as children. So, they weren't prepared for cross-cultural adoptions, for the colonial history in Canada that was causing, and still is causing, so much violence in Indigenous communities. You know, they were never really taught about identity formation and what that means. And as I was hitting my teenager years, although I did not know any gay or lesbian people, it was also very clear that I was feeling differently in my relationships with my girlfriends as opposed to boyfriends. And the family that I grew up with was regular churchgoers. Of course, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, queerness was horrible. So, even just within the home I would hear things around that. So, I was just - there was a lot of self-hate. That I was going to be an alcoholic. That I was going to be a deviant, and all these things. So, you start acting those things out, which is a lot of what I did.
I had this strong attachment to horses. I read everything I could about horses. I was on a farm, which was a great life for me. I still have a very strong connection to farming roots. But my dad and mom made sure that I had a horse as soon as soon as they could. During those times where I was really angry and frustrated, I spent a lot of time on my own, just outside with my horses. My parents also got me into 4H, and so, I got to spend a lot of time with other kids who were connected with horses. I feel like that was one thing that was really - I kind of talk about it now it's like my therapy, as my safe place to be.
I went to university to play basketball. I kind of ended up taking sort of your general Arts Studies program, when I first got there. But one of the classes that was on my list, was a course called "Indian Studies.” And I didn't really know quite what that meant, but I saw it, and I was immediately drawn to it. I wanted to take that course. So, I did. When I got to the University of Regina, for the first term, I realized that there was something called "The Saskatchewan Indian Federated College," which is now called the First Nations University of Canada. And that's where I was taking this course from. I walked into - it used to be trailers - and there was Indigenous faculty, there were Indigenous professors, there were Indigenous people working at the front desk. There were Indigenous people in offices and administrators. It was like... they didn't know who I was exactly - who my family was, but they knew exactly the circumstances around how I had gone into foster care and been adopted. And it wasn't until then that I realized that there were thousands like me across this country that that had occurred to. It really changed my understanding of who I was as an Indigenous person, and how I felt about myself, which then also helped me remove some of the self-harming things that I was doing in my life.
My impression with my parents was that for me to seek out my birth family would mean that I was ungrateful to them, which I think is a big a big mistake any adoptive family can make it. You know, love is infinite. There's no limit on it. You know, having more that one parent or grandparents, or a larger family, can be nothing but a good thing.
Over the course of 25 years, and my writing to different levels of government, to social services, to post-adoption services, I gathered a lot of correspondence. This pile essentially is my writing from 1991 through to 2018, as sort of the last pieces that have gone in, of me trying to figure out who I am. I was learning more about who I was because by then I had finished an "Indian Studies" degree - it was called at the time. And I'd learned a lot about what was happening in Canada, what had happened. About Indigenous peoples in the legal system, Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government. You know, I have all these letters and different departments that I wrote to. I can see when I go back to them, my language developing about the wording I was using, or what I knew my rights were. And different sort of phrases that I would start referring to, like the Sixties Scoop and those kinds of things. But I wasn't really getting any help, anything concrete from them.
And so, I'd found out my birth name and I had done things like go to the public school board archives and started looking through yearbooks for people with the same last name as me, about that birth year. Somebody had told me to check out a school called Balfour Tutorial. Balfour Tutorial was where unwed mothers went. So, I kind of started doing some research, and found out who I thought was my birth mom. I got out the big yellow phone books - if you can remember what those are - and started looking through the phone books for people with the last name Campbell that were living in Saskatoon. And I wrote down a whole bunch of phone numbers. And I went home and started phoning. Of course, many weren't in service or they weren't the right person. But then I saw this one address that I had written down that had and Brenda Campbell and a Ricky Campbell - Richard Campbell living in the same apartment building, but different apartments. And I had written down both numbers on that one. And I couldn't- the Brenda Campbell was not in service. So, I phoned the Richard Campbell. And this man answered, and he was he was so kind and so polite on the phone. And I said, you know, "I know you're not Brenda Campbell, but I'm looking for Brenda Campbell. I know you live in same building. I'm not even sure if you're related." He was just so polite. He just kept saying, "Can I ask who’s calling, please? Can I ask who's calling, please?" And I didn't want to say. And finally, you know, I just kept saying, "I'd really, really like to talk to her. I don't know if you can get her, if you know her." So, eventually I convinced him to go get Brenda who was across the hall. So, she came to the phone and I asked her probably 20 questions. When really only like one or two would have been enough. You know, I asked her if her name was Brenda Pansy Campbell, which is a pretty specific name. I don't know anybody else who has that middle name. And she said, "Yes." And I asked her she had a daughter in 1972. And she said, "Yes." And I asked her what she named her. And it was the name that I had on my adoption order. And then, finally, I said... Well, I said, you know, I said, "Well, that would be me."
I still, you know, I participate in ceremony. It's kind of... I would say it's what keeps grounded, and keeps me, you know, helps me to know who I am. And one of things that I did was after I had met each one of my siblings over the course of sort of 25 years, it took me start to finish, to try and find all my family. I made sure that I had an opportunity to sort of sit down and to listen to each of them about whatever they wanted to share with me, and their experiences. I brought them as much information as I could to help them know who they are and where they came from. And when I reconnected with my brother - my most recent brother. After I had done that, I remember this feeling of like... I almost didn't know what to do. That had been my whole adult life, searching. And I had finally located everybody. I felt - I still felt like just a lot of pressure. I didn't know what to do then with all these stories that I had heard. So, that happened to be the year that my auntie had invited me home for fasting ceremony at our lodge. It just felt like the timing was so right. So, when I went home what I did during that fast was I took all the stories of my siblings that I had heard and shared that with our land and with our place where we're from. And prayed for that, and for them, and their lives and their stories. And I left that there. And that was how I kind of came to sort of conclude that part of what it was that I had been doing. And since that time, I still go to ceremony, but I'm - it's like a different stage has started.
Title card: The Sixties Scoop settlement agreement is meant to provide $25,000 to $50,000 in individual compensation to applicants adopted by non-Indigenous families or made permanent wards between 1951 and 1991. $50 million has also been dedicated to establishing the Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation to support wellness, education, language, culture and commemoration.
I know. Like people have asked me about what's the settlement going to do and how is that sort of, you know, going to sort of compensate for things. You know the money isn't - doesn't solve what's occurred, and what's been lost for me and my family, and the thousands of others like us.
My uncle, he sent me a copy - he wrote it down - a song. He had told me about a song that he had wrote after I had been taken away. And he wrote it down for me and sent it to me. And he says, he never did finish it. But I was the first one, you know, to be taken out of that house. In the song he writes, "Lori-Ann Christie where did you go? I want to know when you'll return." And it goes on, he says, "Lori-Ann Christie how could I know that my, but you'd grow into such a beautiful girl? And when tomorrow comes, where will you be? And will you wait for me? Lori-Ann Christie my how the years, just like the tears, they pass by." And then he apologizes for not ever being able to finish it. But he plays the guitar, and everybody in the family knows about him singing that song after I was taken away. And waiting for me to come back.