'Despite their best efforts, they didn't get away with it'
Words by Cameron Perrier
At the Miseracordia Hospital in Edmonton on a chilly January day in 1965, Emily Nora Labonte gave birth to her third daughter, Donna Marie. But it was not a daughter she would be able to keep.
Labonte's daughter was adopted at birth, and her previous two children had also been also apprehended by social services.
She never got to hold her daughter when she was born, but only got to kiss her on the forehead, before waiting 22 years to see her again.
Donna Marie today goes by the name Suzanne Dzus and lives in Calgary, Alta. A Mohawk woman who turned 50 in Jan. 2015, Suzanne has two children of her own, and she’s a grandmother. She’s working on her master's degree through Royal Roads University, and is active in Calgary’s aboriginal community, credited with starting the Valentine’s Day march for missing and murdered indigenous women in the city.
But her life wasn’t always that way.
Dzus was part of a period in Canadian history known as the Sixties Scoop. The term, coined by Patrick Johnson in his 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System, was a government initiative that saw approximately 20,000 aboriginal children removed from their families across Canada. Like Dzus, these children were adopted into white families or placed in the foster care system with the implicit goal of assimilating them into mainstream society.
For the first year and a half of her life, Dzus said she has no record of where she was. She knows she was sick when she was born and that she was baptised and received her last rights at three days old, according to arch-diocese records she obtained when sending one of her children to a Catholic school. Dzus said doesn't know where she went after leaving the hospital after six weeks. She was adopted out of the hospital after six weeks, but the signature on her adoption file is illegible.
Dzus was soon adopted by a French Catholic family from Saskatchewan, who changed her name from Donna Marie to Suzanne. She spent the first eight years of her life living on a farm 45 minutes outside of Peace River in northern Alberta, where she remembers being told she was French.
LIFE IN PEACE RIVER
Suzanne Dzus recalls how she grew up surrounded by racism in northern Alberta. (Video by Cameron Perrier)
Dzus was adopted into the family with another boy who was nine years older and non-indigenous. She said her eight years with the family were anything but stable. Dzus describes her adoptive mother - who she was to live with in Peace River after the family eventually split up - as a paranoid schizophrenic who self-medicated with alcohol. She said her adoptive father would leave early in the mornings and come back late at night, or sometimes return after days of being away.
“That was always a very scary time for me because when he would leave, she would become very physically abusive with me,” Dzus said.
Dzus also recalls her adoptive father holding racist views towards aboriginal people, and said a quote he used often was "The only good indian is a dead indian."
When reached out to and asked about this, Dzus's adoptive father said he "can't remember" if he said it, but did describe Dzus as a "difficult child to raise."
At times when her adoptive mother was “on a rampage” as Dzus called it, she would hang out in a lean-to she built in the bush near her house, complete with a blanket and a Rogers Golden Syrup can where she kept dried berries and other snacks that wouldn’t spoil.
She also recalls finding herself out on the streets of Peace River when her adoptive mother would get violent. While she said she found herself in some nasty spots with the law and other street people, Dzus admits dealing with them was easier than what was happening in her own home.
At age 11 Dzus was sent into foster care – her adoptive father explains the family couldn't care for her anymore. She spent four years in the system, in which Dzus estimates she was placed in 23 homes before running away at 15.
“I was 15 and I decided I didn’t want someone determining where I would be living yet again and I’d had enough people tell that they didn’t want me living with them,” she said.
While coasting though the system, she recalls that every few months, a social worker would step in, hand her a green garbage bag and tell her to pack her things to move. The transience of her life in that period would carry on into her teenage years after she had left the foster care system, whether she was homeless and suffering from addiction on the Edmonton streets as a young adult, or moving to a new apartment every few months until she was 28 – the first time where she stayed in one place for more than a year.
In many of her foster homes, Dzus recounts being sexually abused. She said her perpetrators varied: another foster child in the home, the foster parents or a family friend. Initially, Dzus said she attempted to tell others, but she caught on quickly that her voice would not be listened to.
“I remember …, saying something about it, and I got beat because of it,” she said. “And called all sorts of names and swore at, ‘Don’t you fucking lie!’ So I caught on very quickly that, no, you actually don’t get to say anything …I never bothered saying anything to anyone.”
When asked about pressing charges, Dzus says that she did meet with a lawyer as part of her healing process. Dzus said she was advised not to press charges based on how long ago she was in the homes. Dzus said she made peace with her decision to not press charges against the perpetrators.
“It may not have been the best choice, but at this point, that’s where I’m at,” she said. “I got to heal, I got to let go and move forward.”
'I'VE RECOVERED A PIECE THAT NO WILL BE ABLE TO TAKE FROM ME'
For Dzus, her healing began when she learned of her aboriginal identity. In addition to being told she was French, Dzus said her adoption records do not note her as First Nations - something she wouldn't find out until her early twenties, when she first met her adoptive mother.
“It was funny too, as I meet my mom for the first time and I think I’m meeting this French woman. I remember seeing this very beautiful brown-faced woman and I’m thinking ‘Wow she looks really native’ and I remember saying something to her and she said ‘Yeah no shit hey?’ And then it clicked for her and she’s like ‘My girl, what did they tell you?’” she said.
Dzus added that in finding out her roots so late she had lost much of the ceremonies, language and traditions she would have otherwise learned by the time she was 15.
“I had to figure out what that meant for me, what that looked like for me, what did it mean? Is it about beads and feathers and trinkets? Because of that fracturing of the family, all of the ceremonies were gone.”
This past summer, however, Dzus experienced a significant connection to her roots when she was asked to the Sundance - a sacred aboriginal ceremony - for the first time at the Alexis First Nation. While she admits she still has a long way to go in learning more about the ceremonies, language and culture, her first Sundance taught her the importance of ceremony and well-being within First Nation communities.
“Ceremony is what connects us to the land, to where we came from, to the animals, to the plants, to the trees, to all of creation. And I understand a little bit more about how important ceremony is for the wellbeing of myself and our nations and all of us.
“I may not know all of the ceremonies or the language or all of those pieces, but I know I belong. And my connection is to the land. And that my strength comes from the land and ceremony, and that’s not something anyone can ever take away from me again now.”
'THEY TRIED TO KEEP US APART, BUT WE SHOWED THEM'
It wasn’t until Dzus was 22 was she able to meet her birthmother. Her adoptive brother from Peace River had found his own biological mother, and his wife at the time offered to help Suzanne find her own. Since her own birth certificate and adoption records were inaccurate, she went through a business and persons directory from the University of Alberta, only going by her mother’s last name and employment history.
“So we started hunting, and we found all the Labontes in that area and started phoning and writing letters,” she said. After getting her birthmother’s contact information through her maternal uncle, Dzus arranged to meet her mother in Vancouver.
“So this was Dec. 21, the day I actually got to talk to my mom for the very first time,” she recalls. “And this was before everybody had a laptop or a cellphone, so we made arrangements and I was going to fly out to Vancouver. But we hadn’t had the chance to exchange photos, so I have no idea who I’m looking for.”
But when Dzus was at the Vancouver airport in 1987, anxiously looking for her mother, she said none of that mattered:
“My dad picked me out of the crowd, and nothing was said. My mom walked over, she looked at me, and she put her hands on my shoulders and she kissed me on the forehead, and I just started bawling” she recounts.
“She [her birthmother] had that moment, where it was her own moment of resistance to the government and their establishment, their assimilation process and it was that simple little phrase of ‘they tried to keep us apart, but we showed them.’”
When Dzus ponders why she reacted so strongly to meeting her mother, she remembers a conversation she had with her mother’s husband, the man she considers as her dad. It was then she learned that her mother only got to kiss her on the forehead before Dzus was apprehended.
“I remember coming home from Vancouver and thinking how do you know for sure that that’s your mom? And in the same breath knowing, knowing that every fibre of my being she was my mom,” she said.
Suzanne Dzus recounts how she was able to meet her biological mother after 22 years. (Video by Cameron Perrier)
“There was never any doubt she was my mom; neither of us ever questioned it. And as I met her siblings, my aunts and uncles, they never ever questioned if I was her daughter.
“I remember just knowing that I was in the right place, and there was a piece of me that just settled."
'I’M KANIEN’KEHA’KA' (I’M MOHAWK)
Reflecting on her life now, Dzus doesn’t know where she would be if she hadn’t been scooped from her birthmother and her aboriginal heritage, noting there were many other things that affected her during her life.
What she does know is while the Sixties Scoop did fracture families much like the residential school system, this attempt by the government ultimately failed.
Suzanne Dzus credits the strength she has today to her mother. (Video by Cameron Perrier)
“The purpose of the Sixties Scoop was to assimilate me, and as hard as they tried, they failed. It was not an easy battle, there were multiple, rapid-fire assaults,” she said.
Her birthmother passed away seven years ago, but Dzus still imparts the stories, history and knowledge of her family to her now-adult children and her seven-year-old granddaughter to ensure what she lost through the Sixties Scoop is not lost on future generations. She recalls how she and her mother used to pick Saskatoon berries in the summer and listening to her mother’s stories; she carries that on now with her granddaughter.
She credits the strength and resilience she has today that carries her forward as an aboriginal woman to her mother, simply reiterating the words, “Despite their best efforts, they didn’t get away with it.”