Riveting Sixties Scoop drama premieres on APTN and Crave

Photo from IMDb. Little Bird explores one family’s search for truth after being torn apart by Canada’s notorious child removal system.

by Patrick Quinn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Nation

Little Bird, a new six-part dramatic series from Rezolution Pictures, premiered May 26 on Crave and APTN, bringing an Indigenous-led perspective of the Sixties Scoop to screens for the first time. The story explores one family’s search for truth after being torn apart by Canada’s notorious child removal system.

Told in parallel timelines, it contrasts the loving Little Bird family on Saskatchewan’s Long Pine Reserve in the 1960s with one of the grown-up children, now named Esther Rosenblum, at her engagement party in Montreal’s Jewish community in the 1980s. Haunted by repressed memories, she travels back to the Prairies to seek the family she lost. 

Co-creator Jennifer Podemski, whose mixed Jewish and Indigenous ancestry includes grandparents who survived both residential school and the Holocaust, developed the script with renowned playwright Hannah Moscovitch. With award-winning directors Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Karahkwenhawi Zoe Hopkins, and a powerful Indigenous cast, the series is driven by a desire for cultural authenticity. 

“We’ve reached a certain maturity in telling our own stories,” said executive producer Ernest Webb. “We’re in a place where we can work with people who have the same values of getting the story out and giving it the respect that it needs.”

Webb said the production’s unique training program for emerging Indigenous creators and crew was an “enlightening and enriching experience.” Along with Podemski and numerous story advisors, Webb drew on memories of his grandparents to portray the Little Bird family’s “classic rez house.”  

Podemski integrated personal experiences with input from Sixties Scoop survivor and expert Raven Sinclair. After watching the short documentary Becoming Nakuset, Podemski realized the lead character’s uncanny similarities to the executive director of the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter.

To ensure authenticity, Nakuset went through the entire script and guided shooting in Montreal’s Westmount neighbourhood. She helped actresses Darla Contois and Lisa Edelstein better understand their characters, advising the latter who plays the adoptive mother to channel the love of Nakuset’s late Bubbe (grandmother). 

“I was thrilled to help but it’s still very surreal to see a dramatization of your actual experience,” Nakuset told the Nation. “I wasn’t a bad kid into drugs or alcohol but still not accepted by my family. Her mother was like my Bubbe, very loving and protective. Most of the others are critical and condescending.”

In her job, Nakuset regularly deals with injustices at youth protection. And she admitted “bawling [her] eyes out so hard” watching Little Bird’s emotional journey. She praised the series as beautifully written and filmed in its depictions of Indigenous realities, reunions with estranged siblings and the experience of feeling “you’re a fish out of water and want so badly to be accepted.”

It’s now estimated that about 20,000 Indigenous children were removed by child welfare agents during the Sixties Scoop. Little Bird focuses on the Montreal phenomenon in which Jewish Family Services offered Indigenous children to adoptive parents like items from a catalogue.

The series immerses viewers in typical reservation life from the times, rich in love and laughter yet deemed impoverished by settler intruders. Despite the massive systemic barriers, at the core is a vibrant humanity that shines through the dark thematic material in nuanced portrayals.

“When we see [our] difficult stories from outsider perspectives, so often it’s framed with this drama porn lens,” said Tailfeathers, who directed the first three episodes. “We’re consistently trying to honour the love and joy within our community. It’s not just a story of removal but what healing can look like in one family.”

Immediately hooked by the “breathtaking” script, Tailfeathers was thrilled to work alongside Podemski and Hawkins. The production made efforts to shelter the child actors from the heaviest parts and provided a trauma-informed therapist and cultural support worker on set for the entire cast. 

“Seeing these proud young children helped me get through the most difficult days, knowing they’re part of this future of reclamation and hope for our communities,” shared Tailfeathers. “The idea throughout the show is we carry our past, ancestors and homelands with us wherever we go.”

Conveying universal themes of self-discovery, identity and reinvention, the compelling drama has the power to resonate with audiences across the globe. Podemski hopes this authentic telling of “one of the most important stories never yet told on screen” will encourage viewers to reconsider their own biases and how they can better stand in solidarity with those being oppressed.  

With even many of the crew previously unfamiliar with the Sixties Scoop, the show’s creators hope the broader public may be introduced to a genocide they know very little about – and that this issue continues today. Tailfeathers noted that in Manitoba, where Little Bird was shot, about 90% of children in foster care are Indigenous.

A 90-minute companion documentary directed by Erica Daniels called Coming Home will be released alongside the final episode on June 30, exploring connections between the growing movement for Indigenous narrative sovereignty and the impact of the child welfare system through interviews with the series’ creators, cast and crew.

Inuit actor Eric Schweig, who plays the grandfather in Little Bird and may be best known for his work in 1990s blockbuster The Last of the Mohicans, was taken in the Sixties Scoop along with his six siblings. Finding his uncle living on Vancouver’s streets, he discovered his birth mother was in an Edmonton hospital, but she died before he could reach her.

Co-director Zoe Hopkins said she certainly wasn’t the only one crying behind the camera during production, sometimes during “reunions that were heartwarming and wonderful.” Many involved with the series expressed that the experience was profound, not only due to the powerful story and performances but in reclaiming the truth of their collective history.

At the Winnipeg premiere, a Sixties Scoop survivor told Hopkins she remembered hiding from government agents under the floorboards many times – something that is depicted “just perfect” in Little Bird’s first episode.

“That was all I ever wanted in being involved in this project, that people feel seen and heard, and that people know the truth,” said Hopkins. “I’m getting messages that it’s hard to watch but it’s so important and beautifully told that people can’t wait to watch the next one. It was really impactful, something I’ll remember forever.”