Sixties Scoop survivor struggles with disconnection from her roots
Twice a day, Rhonda Chapman sits her two younger sons Ian and Kyle down to braid their dark hair, which extends well below their waists. An honoured symbol in First Nation culture, Chapman wants her boys to be proud of their long hair and their aboriginal heritage, to not be ashamed their culture.
But as a young girl living in central Alberta, Chapman’s life was quite the opposite.
Born on the Sunchild First Nation, a Cree reserve northwest of Red Deer, Alta., Chapman and three of her siblings were apprehended in November of 1973, just before her second birthday.
Chapman’s experience in the system was during a period known as the “Sixties Scoop.”
Between the early 1960s and late 1980s, the Scoop saw the removal of approximately 20,000 indigenous children across Canada from their families. They were placed with white families as an adoptee or a temporary ward of the state. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the Scoop and the current indigenous child welfare system have simply “continued the assimilation the residential school system started.”
Chapman was taken with her older sister, Yolande, and placed in what she remembers as a German couple in Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
Life in Rocky Mountain House
Chapman recalls her first moments in what would be her home for five years as quite rough. While she was only a toddler, she vividly recalls being hauled into a scalding shower and doused with anti-lice powder moments after her arrival.
“She then took us out of the tub and chopped off our hair,” Chapman said of her foster mother, who has since died. “I just remember her being very brutally rough.”
Despite her 1974 adoption records, which state that “Rhonda is now functioning quite happily in the family set up,” Chapman recalls her life in the home as one filled with constant “turmoil and constant trauma.” She remembers one incident where her foster mother locked her outside because she couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time — and she and Yolande were locked in the basement each night.
'I didn't want to be native at all'
At age seven, Chapman and her sister were moved to another family after their caregivers at the time became too old to care for them. Their new family, an Australian Seventh Day Adventist couple, lived on a farm in Caroline, Alta. They had three children of their own and five other foster children, including Chapman’s own biological brother.
“The first few years were really good,” she said. “I felt safe.” She recalls that her foster mother in this home was the mother figure she had always been looking for.
Despite a more stable life compared to her first home, Chapman recalls feeling distanced from her family and peer groups because she was First Nations.
“In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s it was still pretty racist,” she said. “You could best describe it as being ignorant. People were not very nice to native people at that time and I was being picked on in middle school.
“In our foster home, our parents didn’t really know anything about native kids, they just had no clue about being native, or our culture, or understanding who we were as a group of people. They based their opinions on things they’d read or seen in movies,”
Chapman added that her foster parents thought cultural practices such as the pow wow were “devilish.”
“They kind of made us more afraid of being native, being different,” she said. At that period in her life, Chapman was ashamed to be First Nations.
After seven more years as a foster child, the couple formally adopted Chapman and moved to Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia. She notes she didn't't experience the same level of racism as she did living in Alberta, and lived a typical teenager life: getting involved with basketball and swimming and going to beach parties with friends.
However, despite an apparently happy life in Australia, Chapman found herself caught in a deep family crisis. She’s reluctant to share details, but decided to return to Canada at age 17. She has only returned to visit Australia once, in 1992.
Having moved back to Canada, Chapman was able to get in touch with her biological family. Her father, Frank Redcalf, was in treatment for addiction in Calgary. She said meeting him opened her eyes to many of the issues facing aboriginal people that she hadn’t experienced being raised away from her roots.
“I wasn’t raised around native people, so I wasn’t used to how addictions and problems that First Nations people deal with all the time,” Chapman said. “I hadn’t been faced with that, so being faced with a parent that had lived his life with addictions problems and the wear and tear on his body was, I guess, frightening to see to me.”
Chapman eventually moved back to the Sunchild reserve following a job loss.
Rhonda Chapman discusses how the Sixties Scoop impacted her and how she raises her two younger sons. Video produced by Cameron Perrier
Despite being back in her home community, she felt a continued disconnection from her family and community. It was a number of years before she would refer to her parents as “mom and dad.”
During ceremonies, Chapman often felt distanced from the traditions. She felt like a hypocrite since she hadn’t grown up knowing their meanings, feeling now as a “man with no land.”
Chapman said she has seen that disconnectedness express itself in her parenting.
“I’ve been so disconnected from my own families, that I’m raising my kids with that same disconnected feeling and that it doesn’t matter,” she said. But, with a smile, she muses on braiding her younger sons’ hair as her connection to them.
“That’s something they’ve always known. I will always take care of their hair.”
'I'm a good mom'
Chapman left the Sunchild reserve three years ago, leaving behind the majority of her biological family. She said now she considers her children as her only family. She doesn’t want them to live in the fear she did growing up – her own older brothers used to tell her to hide when the police were near.
“They have nothing to base their fears on,” she said of her two youngest sons. “I realize that that was a product of my experience, raising my children with fear, and making them afraid to be native.”
When her sons were younger, she took them to participate in a group called Braiding the Sweetgrass, which connects aboriginal families through cultural activities such as ceremonies, drum making and speaking to elders. The aim of the group is to prevent the transmission of intergenerational trauma such as what Chapman has experienced.
While she often said she felt different and disconnected, Chapman recognizes that she was able to pull through her experiences to raise her sons as a proud Cree mom who ensures that their own aboriginal identity isn’t lost.
“I’ve faced addiction, I’ve faced trauma, I’ve faced abuse,” she said. “I’ve kind of lived the life of a native person that is on reserve, or how it’s always been for a native person. And then just, kind of reaching down inside myself and asking, ‘who am I as a native person?’ And I know that I’m a loving and caring Cree mom, and I’m proud of that.”
This profile is part of a larger multimedia project on the Sixties Scoop. You can see the full website here: http://sixtiesscoopalberta.wix.com/sixtiesscoopalberta
Thumbnail courtesy of Rhonda Chapman
- By Cameron Perrier