'I didn't want to be native at all'

Rhonda Chapman was apprehended from her biological family along with her sister at the age of two. Her experiences in the child welfare system in Alberta are part of what is known as the "Sixties Scoop". (Photo courtesy of Rhonda Chapman)

Words by Cameron Perrier

Twice a day, Rhonda Chapman sits her two younger sons Ian and Kyle down to braid their dark hair that extends well below their waists. An honoured symbol in First Nations culture, Chapman wants her boys to be proud of their long hair and their aboriginal heritage and culture.

 

However, 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 on Nov. 1973, just before she was two years old.

 

Chapman's experience in the system was during a period known as the “Sixties Scoop.”

Between the early 1960s to late 1980s, the scoop saw the removal of approximately 20,000 aboriginal children from their families across Canada and placed into white families as an adoptee or a temporary ward of the state. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the scoop, along with the current child welfare system has "simply continued the assimilation the residential school system started."

 

Chapman was taken with her older sister, Yolande, and placed with 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 passed. “I just remember her being very brutally rough.”

Despite her adoption records stating in 1974 “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 recounts one incident where she was locked outside by her foster mother because she couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time – as her and Yolande were locked in the basement each night.

Rhonda Chapman recounts her first moments at her first foster home. (Video by Cameron Perrier)

'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 continue to care for them. Their new family lived in Caroline, Alta., an Australian Seventh Day Adventist couple who lived on a farm. They had three children of their own and five other foster children, which included Chapman's own biological brother. 

 

“The first few years were really good,” she said. “I felt safe.” She recalls her 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 as the outsider from her family and peer groups for being 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,” adding her parents thought cultural practices such as the pow wow were 'devilish,' and they didn’t have a clue.”

“They kind of made us more afraid of being native, being different,” she said at that period in her life she was ashamed to be First Nations.

 

After seven more years as a foster child, Chapman was formally adopted by the couple and moved to Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia. She notes she didn’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 had decided to return to Canada, having only returned to visit Australia once in 1992.

DISCONNECTION

Having moved back to Canada, Chapman was able to get in touch with her biological family. Her father, Frank Redcalf was in addictions treatment in Calgary at the time. Chapman said meeting him opened her eyes to many of the issues facing aboriginal people 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. 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.”

Rhonda Chapman spent her teenage years in Australia, adopted into a Seventh Day Adventist family with nine other children at the age of 14. She had lived with that family as a foster child with her sister since age seven. (Photo courtesy of Rhonda Chapman)

Rhonda Chapman explains how the Sixties Scoop has impacted her connections to both her biological and adoptive families. (Video by Cameron Perrier)

Chapman eventually moved back to the Sunchild reserve following a job loss.

 

Despite being back in her home community, she felt continued disconnection from her family and community.

 

It was a number of years before she would refer to either of her parents as mom and dad.

 

She expressed often that during ceremonies, she felt distanced from the traditions, a hypocrite since she hadn’t grown up knowing their meanings; feeling now as a “man with no land.”

 

Chapman said she had 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 same fear she grew up with – 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 still be able 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. 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.”

Rhonda Chapman discusses how the Sixties Scoop impacted her and how she raises her two younger sons. (Video by Cameron Perrier)

NEXT: Aboriginal child welfare in Alberta today and solutions on the over-representation indigenous children and youth in government care. Learn about the history of the Sixties Scoop

GO BACK: Read, listen and watch the story of Suzanne Dzus and her experience with the Sixties Scoop