Documentary on the Sixties Scoop illuminates a universal thread

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Birth of a Family is a touching chronicle of four siblings coming together, 50 years after being torn apart by the Sixties Scoop.

In association the National Film Board and directed by Cree-Nakota filmmaker Tasha Hubbard, the documentary follows the first meeting of Betty Ann, Esther, Rosalie and Ben as they spend a week together in Banff.

Each were born to Mary Jane Adam, a young Dene mother from Saskatchewan, and each was adopted out as an infant, spending their lives separated from their language, culture and family in non-Indigenous homes.

Though none of the now adult children report abuse suffered at the hands of their adopted or foster parents, what they’ve lost is palpable throughout the film.

From the first tearful hug to blowing out birthday candles representing the 200-plus birthdays the family members spent not knowing one another, it’s clear what’s been taken from them – time. Things most of us take for granted, like culture and family, are the priceless pieces of the puzzle missing from the lives of Mary Jane’s offspring.

At times, it’s as if they revert back to children as they share a genuine feeling of family for the first time – skipping rocks, holding hands and getting close to the edge of a cliff at a mountain look-out. All the while they laugh and laugh and laugh.

Later in the film, the siblings meet an Elder who shows them how to play the hand drum and tan a hide. Betty Ann makes a tearful confession: “I’m 56 years old and everything he showed us in there was new to me. That’s not right, is it?”

The director later explained the irony of that moment. “They’re Dene and the Elder was Nakota,” said Hubbard.

It’s an incredibly moving story that hits a universal chord. This isn’t just the story of these four siblings – it’s the story of over 20,000 Indigenous children in Canada. Many of whom never found their family.

So while there’s heart-wrenching emotion at every turn, there’s joy too. The documentary is the family’s happy ending.

As for Hubbard, she grew up on a farm not far from her reserve with a non-Indigenous family. As a teenager, she found out she had 10 brothers. She admits the closeness of the subject matter of the film made this project different than her earlier documentaries.

“Previously I took a more expository approach to filmmaking. I would rely on narration and interviews to tell the story,” Hubbard said during the question period after screening the film at the Montreal International Documentary Festival held at Concordia University. “With this film I just wanted to capture the story of them coming together as a family, organically.”

The fly-on-the-wall technique proved more difficult than initially imagined. At one point during the filming Hubbard took her cameraman by the ear to pull him out a sibling’s face, an apparent “no-no” in the documentary world.

The cast and crew shared two tiny cabins in the Canadian Rockies for the duration of the shoot. And when they left the cabins, there was a lot of running around.

“They would tell us, ‘Oh, we’re going to go to this today,’ and then the director of photography would have to race ahead and ask for permission to film there,” said Hubbard. “They were all mic’d up, so I could hear everything they said. A couple times they lost Ben and I’d hear them say, ‘Where’s Ben? We lost Ben!’ And I’d want to yell ‘Ben!’ in the food-court, but I had to stay impartial.”

Despite the production issues, the film is a hit – it came in sixth out of 200 films at Hot Docs last May in Toronto and was an official selection of the imagineNATIVE film festival in October.

Hubbard says that Canada is just beginning to have these conversations surrounding residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. For these discussions to continue, the voices of survivors must be amplified and listened to. She also commended the creation of the Indigenous Screen Office and encouraged Indigenous filmmakers to start telling their own stories.

“Indigenous storytellers are at a point now where it really is, ‘Nothing about us without us,’” said Hubbard. “We’re good at it. We’re good storytellers.”

She also addressed the recent Sixties Scoop settlement.

“Like the character in the film, I can never get back the time I missed with my family. It’s gone,” Hubbard noted. “What I can do is look to the future and give my daughter everything the Sixties Scoop took from me.”

Birth of a Family had its network premiere November 19 on CBC. If you weren’t able to catch it, contact the NFB education department and request a community or classroom screening.


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