The story of Mary Jane and Betty Ann Adam: A mother and daughter who reconnected after they were separated in the Sixties Scoop
Betty Ann Adam was just a toddler when social service workers tore her away from her family and Indigenous culture.
Born in Uranium City and raised in a foster home near Prince Albert, Betty Ann was one of thousands of children who innocently fell victim to the Sixties Scoop.
The term refers to the removal, or ‘scoop,’ of Indigenous children who were placed into foster homes or adopted by non-Indigenous families across Canada and the United States. It was the result of a series of policies by provincial government authorities.
Betty Ann considers herself “one of the lucky ones” because she was placed in a loving, stable home, unlike others who switched homes more times than you can count on your fingers.
The former Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter, cowriter of the documentary Birth of a Family and member of the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Saskatchewan shares her story about losing—and then finding—her cultural identity.
Betty Ann spoke at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library on Tuesday evening as part of the Explore Lifelong Learning program.
About 20 people sat in the auditorium as she told her story, standing behind the podium in a bright red sweater, lightly curled dark brown hair and large black glasses.
At times she spoke with love in her voice, and others, disgust.
Betty Ann’s mother was Mary Jane Adam. She was a member of the Fond du Lac First Nation, a Dene community in Saskatchewan’s far north.
Mary Jane was 22 years old when she had Betty Ann, giving birth to four babies in total. However, she didn’t raise any of them.
Betty Ann was three years old when she was scooped.
“One morning, I remember my mother dressing me in this little plaid dress. It was too small for me, and I remember these strangers were in the room. There was a man and a woman, they were being really nice to me,” she described.
“My mother was crying, and she was holding onto me and they took me out of her arms and took me into a car, and it was a hot day. I remember I was wearing a dress, and you know how the seats get hot on a summer day? It was burning my legs.”
Betty Ann then went on an airplane, looking down with the realization that those little specks on the ground were actually cars on the road.
She was taken to a farm east of Prince Albert, which would be her new home. There, she said she met a lady and a little boy who she would soon call her mother and brother.
“I started a new life,” said Betty Ann.
Her foster parents eventually were taking care of seven children. They had three of their own, and took in Betty Ann, a brother and sister and then another boy as part of the Sixties Scoop.
“They wanted to help,” said Betty Ann. They recognized there were so many Indigenous children whom the government claimed were in need of new parents.
“My mom and dad, as we learned to call them, they were good people; they were hardworking people. There was no alcohol in the home where I grew up. Nobody smoked cigarettes,” she said. She let out a laugh when she explained that the children would be in big trouble if they ever smoked.
Betty Ann said as far as she knew, she and her adopted siblings were the only Indigenous kids in the school they attended. While she felt like she fit in with the crowd, “there was always this undercurrent that you were aware of.”
She told a couple of stories where other students made “casually racist remarks.”
One of them was during a conversation about ‘Indian summer,’ a period of warm, dry weather usually between September and November.
“I always thought that sounded so nice and I always felt like confident, right? And then hearing somebody say ‘Well at least they’re good for something,’” said Betty Ann with a look of disappointment on her face. The room let out several “awes.”
“I grew up not knowing, and not knowing who I was and actually being absorbed into a white community where I actually learned to fear Indigenous people. I was so separated from any Indigenous community, any Indigenous people. I didn’t know who my relations were or who my people were and I got these nonverbal messages that ‘You don’t want to go there, you don’t want to be apart of that.’”
Mary Jane Adam
Betty Ann considers herself both a survivor of the Sixties Scoop and an intergenerational survivor of residential schools.
Her mother became ill with tuberculosis when she was a teenager at residential school. Although it didn’t take her life at the time, the disease killed thousands of others who never returned home.
“My mother told me the year she was 17, her feet didn’t touch the ground because she was that sick,” explained Betty Ann.
Mary Jane’s mother died when she was a little girl, being hit with a disease that swept her entire First Nation. Not only did Mary Jane never have her own mother, government policies didn’t allow her to be a parent herself because she drank alcohol.
Betty Ann said growing up, she had young friends who were often left alone at home because their parents were out at the bar. She said the government never interfered with that particular non-Indigenous family.
“If you were Indigenous, you were already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and there was definitely a stigma and Indigenous women, especially single mothers, were held to a standard that was perhaps unfair.”
Betty Ann found her mother’s name when she was training at a dentist’s office in Uranium City that had a list of all the Fond du Lac band members. Under ‘Mary Jane Adam,’ she saw a list of all of her siblings she didn’t know she had.
That’s because her younger sister was taken to a foster home when she was only three months old, and her other brother and sister were taken straight from the hospital after they were born. Betty Ann hadn’t met all of her siblings until she was 53 years old.
In 1985, Betty Ann wrote Mary Jane a letter, receiving one back. That was the start of their reunited relationship.
Mary Jane was living in Vancouver’s downtown east side.
After meeting her a couple of times, Betty Ann, now in her 30s, decided to visit her while she was in the city for a journalism conference.
The conference was at the beginning of May, around Mother’s Day.
“I went shopping and I bought her presents and a card and everything and I picked her up and we went to the beach and we had a lovely day together,” she said.
“It was only later, after she died, that I realized that having giving birth to four children it was the only Mother’s Day in her life when she was celebrated by one of her children. You know, she didn’t get any of those kindergarten construction paper flowers or cards.”
Learning how to knit in residential school, Mary Jane always gifted people she knew knitted socks. This included her doctor, who Betty Ann met and told her about her personality.
“She said many of the people who lived in the downtown east side have had really, really difficult lives and it makes many people very bitter. But she said that my mother wasn’t like that, that she had a certain grace about her, that she accepted her circumstances and just wanted to bloom where she was planted,” said Betty Ann.
The doctor also said Mary Jane was the lifeline for another lady she played Bingo with. After the lady got sick with diabetes, Mary Jane would pick her up twice a week so she could still come and play.
The relationship between Mary Jane and Betty Ann developed. Betty Ann and both of her mothers—Mary Jane and her foster mom—even bonded together over Scrabble. She said it was one of her favourite memories.
In 2006, Mary Jane was in a Vancouver hospital when Betty Ann, her uncle and his son came to see her.
Mary Jane squeezed Betty Ann’s hand when she said hello. She sang Amazing Grace to her, feeling the warmth of her mother’s hand over and over when Mary Jane continued to let her know she knew she was there.
“(My uncle) told (the medical team) about the way the people lived off the land and how they lived on the traplines and the way families were related. And as I sat there, I was getting this history myself and it made me feel really proud of who we were and it made me really proud that he was making sure that the medical team understood that she wasn’t just another…Indian down in Vancouver’s east side.”
Mary Jane died from pneumonia at 72 years old.
Premier Scott Moe apologized for The Sixties Scoop on behalf of the provincial government in January of this year.
The province provided funding for members of the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Saskatchewan to travel around the province and conduct sharing circles. They occurred throughout October and November of last year in six cities, including Prince Albert.
A government representative sat in on each of the sharing circles.
Betty Ann said the effects of The Sixties Scoop are still present today, showing themselves in crime and addictions.
“People who are so deep in their addictions…they’re always looking for the next drink before they’re even feeding their kids or making sure they’re dressed or taken care of. We know that happens, and it did happen, and it still happens,” she said.
“But to take children away from their families is not the solution.”
Instead of stripping children away from their parents, she explained, the struggling mothers and fathers are in need of help.
“The parents who are drinking are housing the spirits of the children who are still hurting, who have never ever come to terms with the pain because it’s just too overwhelming.”
But, as one of the lucky ones, Betty Ann feels fortunate that despite losing her Dene language and growing up in a white home, she was able to reconnect with her mother and her culture.
“I realized that my Indigenous identity had followed me all my life like a scary shadow that loomed behind and over me. And as I went through my life, it was there, and I tried to deny it was there and it frightened me. And when I stopped running and turned to meet it, I found a friend, I found my family and I found myself.”
For more on Betty Ann Adam’s story, read her column for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix titled “Scooped: How I lost my mother, found my family, recovered my identity.” The piece won the 2017 Canadian Association of Journalists best text feature.
You can also watch the National Film Board documentary Birth of a Family. The film was directed by Tasha Hubbard.