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The Impact of Native Adoption

Interview and Essay with Tonia Wessel, Sixties Scoop adoptee

by Annie Clair and Tonia Taylor

Tonia Wessel, an Ojibway woman, was adopted out of her community as a newborn and grew up in New Zealand. An estimated 20,000 children were adopted out of First Nations families and placed into non-First Nations homes between the 1960s and 1980s.
Tonia Wessel, an Ojibway woman, was adopted out of her community as a newborn and grew up in New Zealand. An estimated 20,000 children were adopted out of First Nations families and placed into non-First Nations homes between the 1960s and 1980s.

(K'JIPUKTUK) Halifax - A recent gathering of 'Sixties Scoop' adoptees in Ottawa, Ontario, saw First Nations people from across the country - and beyond - come together and share their stories of growing up apart from their communities, identity, language and culture. Sixties Scoop refers to the group of adopted First Nations children, usually taken as newborns, who were removed from their communities and typically placed into Caucasian, middle-class, families. An estimated 20,000 children were adopted out between the early 1960s and 1980s, as residential school policies were being phased out.

The following interview is with Tonia Wessel, an Ojibway woman who was adopted out as a newborn and grew up in New Zealand. It is only as an adult, with children of her own, that Tonia is reconnecting with her biological family.

Following this interview is a brief essay written by Tonia Wessel.

Annie Clair:When did you realize that your were adopted?

Tonia Wessel: I am not quite sure, but I know my adopted parents had a book on adoption and they read it to me at a fairly young age, and also being native growing up in a white family would've been noticeable.

AC: Talk about your own experiences, being an adoptee.

TW: I don't recall anything growing up that made me feel different with my siblings, but the way I was, so loud and just out there as my adoptive family are very conservative, very quiet. but the way I was treated I think was different, but I was a rebel so maybe that's why. Climbing out of windows at night, or smoking in my teenage years, stealing at a young age, none of my siblings did any of that. So I was totally the opposite.

AC: What has your experience been like, trying to learn about your past?

TW: My journey in trying to find my biological parents took a very long time almost 12 years, as I applied as soon as I was 18 years old. I was 29 by the time I heard back. I'm not too sure as to why, if I got lost in the system or if it was because I moved around a lot. I came to accept that my biological mother had me at a very young age, and wasn't in a good situation to look after me, but I have questions as to why no one knew about me, all I can think is that she kept it hidden.

I didn't know I had two other sisters, but recently have been reunited with them and still have contact with them.

AC: How do you feel not knowing your language, culture ?

TW: Since I have been back home, I have embraced our culture and want to learn as much as I can, It is a big part of me not knowing it, or how to speak it, and when I hear others speaking it, its almost an overwhelming feeling cos I can almost see myself speaking it too. It is such a beautiful culture and language, and I get mad, when I know that colonization tried to take something so beautiful and our pride away from us.

AC: How did being adopted out of your community affect you & your parents?
TW: I think not growing up with the culture is a sad loss, knowing that if we had stayed here in Canada, my life might have been so different, as I could have learned the songs, the language, the beautiful crafts that our culture has and learn the teachings and experienced it. Even if my adopted parents wouldn't let me go to the friendship centers to learn, if I was here growing up, I'm sure I would have climbed out the window like how I did, when I wanted to go somewhere. I was very stubborn when I wanted my own way, and still am.

The Impact of Native Adoption by Tonia Wessel:

They often say that it’s in the best interest of the child to be taken away from their parents, but do they truly know the future and the impact on that child’s life, once they are taken and given away to a family that is not their own, by being biologically and culturally impaired.

I am a result of this cruel system, as many of our native children and babies are, I was given up for adoption and made crown ward at birth, an Ojibway kwe that never got to meet her mama because the system failed to do what was right and in the best interest of my life, they failed me and my mama because they gave me into the hands of a white family, and from then on they gave them the power to do what they liked, even if it meant to assimilate me by taking me to another country on the other side of the world.

As a teenager I once again became a part of the harsh system, lost in a world that was not my own, a family a culture that was not my own, but looking for love and acceptance that was never found, until the day, I stepped back into the country and to the family that was my own.

My question is, how do the judges and Case workers sleep at night, once their duty is done, not knowing if this innocent child that was placed in their hands, would truly have a life that was better than the one with their biological family. My heart and my tears go out to the children that have no choice in the matter of where they go or to whom they go, all I can see is them growing up with confusion and not knowing their true identity that our culture provides for us to give us strength and love and wisdom and truth and honesty and humility.

Given in to the wrong hands they will know nothing of our proud culture but only pain and suffering of longing to know who they truly are, I count myself fortunate that I did have a happy ending, through all my tears and stubborness is the one thing that made me persevere to find my beloved family, even though my beloved mama has already past, but to me the most precious gift of all, was not me finding them, but them accepting me.

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