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How Betty Ann Adam Came to Tell the Riveting Story of Her ‘Scooped’ Family

The making of Birth of a Family began decades ago when an Indigenous 7-11 worker wondered about being a journalist.

By David Beers 16 Nov 2017 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers is the founder of The Tyee.

[Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series “The Story behind the Big Story,” intended to connect Tyee readers with high-impact work being done by Canadian journalists in other settings.]

Betty Ann Adam awakened to the sound of her cellphone “dinging, dinging, dinging with emails.” A story she’d written had run that morning on the front page of the National Post, and strangers were getting in touch.

“The first email said, ‘I am on a subway in Toronto reading your story and I am crying,’” Adam recalls.

“I received 30 or 40 more like it over the next few days. Many said, ‘I had no idea this was going on in Canada. This is shocking. I am so sorry this happened to you. Thank you for telling this story. It’s so important.’”

Adam is a veteran reporter at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, where her piece ran on April 26 under the headline: “How I Lost My Mother, Found My Family, Recovered My Identity.” Adam offered a personal lens on a national tragedy. She related her own struggle to find her birth mother and siblings years after she was swept up in the “Sixties Scoop” as Indigenous children were taken from their homes, communities, cultures.

She opens with a memory imprinted at age three. “There’s a policeman and a lady in the room and they’re being really nice to me. My mother’s arms are tight around me; she’s crying and pleading. I don’t know why they are taking me away from her.”

The article, also published by the National Post and other papers in the Postmedia chain, made phones ding and it raised questions. What are the costs borne by the scooped children now grown up? What does Canada owe them? When they hear the word “reconciliation,” what do they imagine it means?

Three days after Adam’s newspaper piece appeared, a documentary film version, Birth of a Family, premiered to acclaim at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival. This Sunday a trimmed version airs on the CBC.

Behind the story Adam tells in her newspaper and on the screen lies another tale she shared over the phone earlier this week. It’s about how she became a reporter in the first place and how, decades later, she arrived at the point where she was ready to share her life experiences so powerfully.

“Who was I?”

Betty Ann Adam was born in 1959 to Mary Jane Adam, a Dene member of the Fond du Lac First Nation in northwest Saskatchewan. Seized from her unmarried mother’s arms by social workers, she was raised in a foster family headed by white parents. “I could never be white,” she writes, “but it seemed I wasn’t really Indian, either. Who was I?”

Growing up, she learned she had a younger sister named Rosalie, also taken from Mary Jane and living 150 kilometres away. They met on occasion. That’s all Betty Ann really knew about her origins until she was 19 and doing a practicum as a dental assistant in the town where she was born, Uranium City.

There she discovered records showing she had another sister named Esther and a brother named Ben. Driven by curiosity, “I went out searching,” she says, “but I didn’t have any luck.”

She quit being a dental assistant, went to university, took a smattering of classes, worked the night shift at a 7-11. She was “unanchored, broke all the time.”

During those years she met her cousins from the north and wanted to learn more about her Indigenous heritage.

Over coffee with a friend, she made a list of what it would take to change her life. The plan she jotted down included volunteering to get new work experience. One of her first tries was at a cable access station, where she lugged gear and loved it.

“I realized I wanted to work with Indigenous people and I wanted to work in the media. I just set everything in that direction.”

In Saskatoon, she made connections with Indigenous filmmakers, a small but vibrant scene. “They called themselves Katip Ayim Soochik, a Cree term that meant ‘we are those who own ourselves.’ The idea was we would produce video, radio and print of our own from an Indigenous perspective, and we wouldn’t have non-native bosses telling us what to do.”

Among the Katip Ayim Soochick, Adam recalls, “I was treated like a friend, one of the group instantly, someone with every right to be part of this circle, which I’d never felt before.”

During that time, she went north and met her grandfather and also learned her mother, a residential school survivor, lived in Vancouver. They began exchanging cards and letters.

She helped establish Saskatoon’s volunteer-run community radio station. When renowned Indigenous journalist Doug Cuthand hired Adam to work on the magazine he headed at the time, Saskatchewan Indian, she found out she loved print journalism. “As soon as I got into that, I knew I was home.” But the government cut funding for the publication and again she was broke and needing work.

Then a friend talked her up to the editor of the StarPhoenix, Bill Peterson, who admitted he was embarrassed about the lack of Indigenous reporters in his newsroom. Peterson offered Adam the job, and she accepted.

“I didn’t have a journalism degree,” Adam notes, “so they paired me up with a senior writer. She was hard as nails, high standards. She told me where my weaknesses were and taught me to become a newspaper writer.” Adam, according to a survey done around that time, was one of just four reporters in all of Canada who identified as Indigenous. Her colleagues at the StarPhoenix, she remembers, were “very supportive.” The atmosphere was “wonderful.”

Adam made it clear to everyone, “‘I don’t want to be on the Native beat.’ I just wanted to be a reporter learning how to do my job. I was still asking myself, ‘Am I a real Indian? Who am I to be a spokesperson?’ I didn’t want anyone to think I was an advocate. I wanted to be disinterested in the professional sense.” The year was 1989.

“Prove it”

On June 11, 2008, Adam watched the television in the StarPhoenix newsroom as former prime minister Stephen Harper delivered in the House of Commons a formal apology to survivors of residential schools and all Indigenous people.

She recalls listening and thinking, “Prove it. You show me you’re sorry. This will be useless if nothing happens.”

Then her mind turned to the recent offer of payment the federal government had made to her as the child of a residential school survivor. Getting the sum would require a lot of legal paperwork. It seemed demeaning to try. “I’d said, ‘This is too little too late, isn’t it?’ What the hell is this? It almost felt insulting, like dirty money.”

Except now, Adam saw a purpose. Her mother Mary Jane was no longer alive. But she could use this money to find Esther and Ben and bring together Mary Jane’s family.

First meeting of Betty Ann Adam and her siblings. Photo: National Film Board of Canada.

Seven years later, as she closed in on her goal, Adam found herself at an event presided over by Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson. Adam shook Wilson’s hand and told her that after so arduous a search, finally she would soon gather her lost siblings. Wilson, who’d been a longtime journalist with the CBC, listened and asked, “Who is going to document it?”

“I laughed and said maybe someday I will write a book. Marie held my gaze. She said, ‘It should be recorded. Do you need help?’”

Wilson’s urging sparked the making of the documentary Birth of a Family. Adam approached Tasha Hubbard to collaborate. Hubbard, an award winning Cree filmmaker and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, herself had been adopted in the Scoop.

“My turn”

Betty Ann Adam says it was not so long ago that she wouldn’t have imagined revealing, in her journalism, so much about herself and those close to her. On many days, the sheer effort of seeking her past was too emotionally overwhelming. “Throughout the search, you are constantly reminded of what you don’t have. You are constantly confronted with what you are lacking.”

Besides, she had been trained in her craft to follow certain rules, had done so for nearly three decades. “As a journalist you don’t put yourself in the story. It made me uncomfortable, the idea of telling the world my personal business.”

“But then I reflected. I’ve spent my career persuading people there are important things in their life to tell. The more touching, the more heartfelt, the better. I have learned over the years that the best way to explain an important issue is by telling someone’s personal story.

“I said to myself, ‘I’ve asked many people to be vulnerable. Now it is my turn. If others can tell their stories why can’t I?’”

Birth of a Family airs on CBC at 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19. The documentary is directed by Tasha Hubbard, co-written by Hubbard and Betty Ann Adam, and produced by the National Film Board’s North West Studio (Bonnie Thompson, producer; David Christensen, executive producer).  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous Affairs, Film

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