LITTLE BIRD Q&A with JENNIFER PODEMSKI
How does this story intertwine with your own background and story…
JP: Although I am not adopted, much of this story and Esther’s psychology journey and identity crisis was informed by my being a Jewish and Indigenous person who grew up predominantly within my Jewish family. When we began this process, we took a deep dive into my most personal feelings and experiences connected to these two identities. I also incorporated some of my mother’s experiences being an indigenous woman who married into a Jewish family and the challenges she was up against. My own personal connection to the 60’s scoop is that I was my mother’s first-born. She just turned 17, and I was removed by social workers from the hospital. I was taken into the system and put into foster care. It was the efforts of one social worker, who was retiring, that helped my mother get me back by the time I was three months old. That said, as an indigenous person, Myself and my family are impacted daily by the reality that we continue to live in colonial violence. Children continue to be removed from families and the systems that are meant to protect us only perpetuate the harm that is embedded within the policies and practices designed to dismantle our families and detach us from our culture, language and lands.
This story is an important one to tell. What world does the show live in culturally?
JP: This show is told through an Indigenous lens. It is about an Indigenous woman who was adopted into an affluent Jewish family and longs to belong somewhere. Detached from her indigenous identity, she’s spent her life desperately trying to fit in to her Jewish family and culture. But one day she risks losing it all to search for her birth family and find out who she really is. This brings her and us into the Indigenous community both in Regina, Canada and on her reserve Long Pine First Nation. The story lives at the intersection of Jewish life and Anishinaabe (this is Ojibway in the language) Life where the Saskatchewan Rez and Montreal’s affluent Westmount neighbourhood collide. At its core, the story is rooted in the Saskatchewan prairies, where the land meets the sky and Esther’s family welcomes her back home.
The show is tackling a really traumatic and sensitive issue that affected roughly 20,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit families. However, beyond the trauma and the heaviness there is a softer, more complex essence that you’ve been able to capture. Can you talk a little more about the essence of the show?
JP: It is about identity and belonging, the longing to fit in, the yearning to know the truth about the past as a way to move forward. It’s about faith and love and reconnection. It’s about Esther discovering who she is, where she comes from and the truth of her past. It’s about acceptance and love and redefining what it means to be a family
Little Bird explores several complex themes, in a way that has never been done on any screen. Can you talk about how you managed to do that?
JP: As Indigenous storytellers we are responsible for upholding authenticity around our stories. Since the beginning of screen stories, our Indigenous stories and perspectives have been filtered through the lens of non-Indigenous storytellers which has created a false narrative about who we are, where we come from and the experiences we’ve lived. Indigenous storytellers within the screen sector and beyond have been reclaiming and rebuilding the narrative for over 20 years but we have only scratched the surface. Little Bird represents one of the few, culturally authentic expressions of the Indigenous experience through an Indigenous lens. With, me, Jennifer Podemski at the helm as showrunner and executive story editor, we witness a genuinely culturally authentic telling of one of the most important stories never yet told on the screen. Reinforcing the cultural authenticity, indigenous directors Zoe Hopkins and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers lead the storytelling on the screen with trauma informed practices that are rooted in their own lived experience. There is no Indigenous person who is not impacted by the policies created to eliminate Indigenous identity. We have all been traumatized by the horrors that colonial violence brings. Little Bird is one story of many and audiences around the world will have an opportunity to witness the power of authentic indigenous storytelling and will be surprised by relatable themes that connect us regardless of our race.
In what way does Little Bird bring up relevant cultural conversations in the world today?
JP: In today’s climate, people everywhere are reinventing themselves. In a post pandemic reality, many of us have been forced to reckon with our own trauma, our past and reimagine a new way forward. Yes, Little Bird embodies a culturally specific narrative, but the central theme of identity and belonging will resonate with audiences across the globe. Audiences will also be introduced to a genocide they know very little about. They will be invited into an Indigenous experience they may have never known about before and will perhaps be called to examine their own bias and consider ways in which they can stand in solidarity and allyship with those who are being oppressed.
The cast of this production is almost entirely Indigenous. How important was it to have authentic casting when telling this story? And to go a little further, explain your process of authentically casting Little Bird…
Casting was a huge endeavour. Indigenous people are so severely underrepresented in the screen sector that I had to rely on my Instagram audience for casting. We did the typical outreach through casting, but the effort was largely on me to go deep into my community and seek out those who would audition or those who were not represented by an agent. So many people sent auditions in through my Instagram casting calls and many of those who were hired came from that outreach. Once we hit the ground in Winnipeg for prep, I did the same kind of outreach and searched every pocket of the city through word of mouth and social media, and we saw so many people who have never auditioned before. I tried to give everyone who came out a role, but we only had so many. So many actors and all of the background performers came from this outreach, and I’m blown away by that!!!
LITTLE BIRD – BACKGROUND + RESOURCES
Identity lost and found: Lessons from the sixties scoop by Raven Sinclair –https://fpcfr.com/index.php/FPCFR/article/view/25
Nakuset, an outspoken advocate for survivors of the 60’s scoop, taken from her own family in Saskatchewan in the 60’s and raised in a Jewish home in Westmount, joins the Little Bird team as story advisor, bringing a very personal perspective about her own lived experiences as an Indigenous adoptee.
⇨ Jennifer Podemski herself, was a product of the 60’s Scoop but for a short time. It was a social worker from Child and Family Services in Toronto who made it her mission to bring Jennifer back to her mother after only 10 days only days before her retirement.
⇨ Much of the story is based on Jennifer’s personal, lived experience growing up with a Jewish father and Indigenous mother. She is also the grandchild of a holocaust survivor on her paternal side and two residential school survivors on her maternal side.
⇨ Jennifer’s mother Joanna Anaquod has supported the project as story advisor since inception and Jennifer’s aunt Sharon Anaquod joined the project during pre-production, working closely with the creative team. Jennifer, Hannah and Zoe travelled to Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan as a writer’s room exercise. It was very important to Jennifer that the story take place in a fictional community based on Muscowpetung, where her mother is from. “Both my mother and aunt have been instrumental in grounding this story in authenticity. Every detail comes from a real story and is authentically represented.” (Jennifer Podemski)
⇨ Forced removal of indigenous children from their families and communities as an assimilation strategy, aligning with the federal mandate outlined in the Indian Act to remove the Indian in the child. An extension of the residential school system that persists today, making indigenous children the majority of children in the child welfare system.
⇨ Systemic dismantling of indigenous families through racist government policies has had a devastating impact on indigenous people across the globe. Loss of language, identity, culture, family and community have displaced and traumatized indigenous people for 150 years.
⇨ Sharing these stories in an authentic way, through a culturally specific lens, amplifying the voices and perspective of Indigenous People with indigenous people at the helm is a step towards narrative sovereignty but until we get there, the adversity is real. Narrative activism is about reclaiming our point of views as indigenous people. It’s undoing the harm that has been done in media and cinema and rebuilding our narratives from the ground up to mobilize social and political change while teaching people how to think about Indigenous people and their relationship to us while reminding ourselves, as Indigenous people, of our own strength, resilience, and capacity to thrive.
BACKGROUND ON SIXTIES SCOOP
Stolen Nation Tom Lyons, Eye Weekly January 13, 2000
For more than 20 years, Canada took native children from their homes and placed them with white families. Now a lost generation want its history back
When former Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart made her historic apology to the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada on Jan. 8, 1998, she singled out native residential schools as the most reprehensible example of Canada’s degrading and paternalistic Indian policies. Designed to assimilate native children into English ways and strip them of their language and culture, the schools also became notorious for sickening physical and sexual abuse.
Though none would disagree with Stewart’s condemnation of residential schools, which were phased out in the 1960s, some wondered why she didn’t also apologize for the equally assimilationist — if less well-known — strategy that followed immediately in the schools’ wake: the widespread adoption of Aboriginal children out to non-native families in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s.
Commonly referred to as the Sixties Scoop, the practice of removing large numbers of Aboriginal children from their families and giving them over to white middle-class parents was discontinued in the mid-’80s, after Ontario chiefs passed resolutions against it and a Manitoba judicial inquiry harshly condemned it.
The passage of the Child and Family Services Act of 1984 ensured that native adoptees in Ontario would be placed within their extended family, with another Aboriginal family or with a non-native family that promised to respect and nurture the child’s cultural heritage. Aboriginal peoples also began to play a much greater role in the child welfare agencies that served them, and the numbers of native adoptees in general began to decline as more stayed with their birth parents.
However, the act also dictated that old birth records remain sealed, unless both the birth parent and the child asked for them. This has helped keep the period in darkness and frustrated attempts by adoptees to learn about their roots. Those who now feel they were victimized by the adoption process have an extremely difficult time finding out who they are.
Donna Marchand, a 44-year-old Toronto lawyer, is launching a court challenge against the Harris government to strike down the sealed birth records provisions of the Child and Family Services Act.
An adopted child herself, she recalls being terrorized into denying her origin: “When I was about three-and-a-half, it started coming to my attention that I was adopted. My cousins told me. I was only three years old, but I was aware that I was different. I just didn’t fit in. I was getting called a little bastard. And I asked my adopted mother what adoption meant. She said, ‘Don’t ever say that again — if your father hears you, he’ll kill you.’ He’d been sitting there in his drunken stupor. He’d go on binges for days.
“I’ve lived my whole life being native because I was called a squaw. I don’t look white enough. And I was in a working-class, real WASP, downtown Toronto. I got called a squaw and Donna Wanna, and I got tied to my share of trees and got my hair hacked off.”
Marchand’s constitutional challenge involves Section 7 and Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to her lawyer, Jennifer Scott. “Section 7 is the right to life, liberty and security of person,” says Scott. “And Section 15 is the equality rights. The 15 provisions are that adoptees are sort of a group that is protected. But different communities of adoptees are particularly affected, and it has a tremendous impact on communities like native people — where they don’t know who their mom and dad are, but they’re assimilated into families that don’t even know their culture, their history, or their background. It goes to who they are.”
Just as the closing of the residential schools did not mean their legacy of suffering instantly vanished, so the end of the Sixties Scoop did not mean that all the native adoptees who were farmed out to abusive or alienating non-native families suddenly found themselves with a clear-cut identity or a secure place in society.
Indeed, many still found themselves not only “torn between two worlds,” but literally unsure if they were native at all, and not French or Italian as their adoptive parents claimed. Their birth records were sealed and often amended to include the names of the adoptive, rather than biological, parents. Moreover, their adoption records were in many cases inaccurate, incomplete, falsified or simply missing. As a result, many native adoptees who did try to locate their birth parents or confirm their native status wasted literally decades on failed searches or frustrating battles with Children’s Aid authorities or Indian Affairs officials.
Suzanne Bezuk, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, says “non-identifying information” can be made available to adult adoptees without their birth parents’ consent. “And for Aboriginal peoples in particular, in the case of native clients, the name of the band and reservation can be provided.” However, Aboriginal status and band names were seldom recorded on the original birth and adoption records in the ’60s and ’70s. So even this “non-identifying information” is rarely available.
Marchand cannot even be sure whether her mother was in fact native. “All I know is, it’s very typical for native women, and my Uncle Frank says we’re native. And my Aunt June looks native. Me and my two sisters, we look real native. But my mother, she internalized the shame of being a native woman. Look what she put down [on the adoption record]: ‘Ethnicity not stated.’ It’s a shame. A lot of native women don’t say, because they were going to lose their babies, and they wanted them to be adopted by good people, and good people weren’t going to adopt ‘little bastard squaws.’ ”
Even now, researchers trying to determine exactly how many Aboriginal children were removed from their families during the Scoop say the task is all but impossible because adoption records from the ’60s and ’70s rarely indicated Aboriginal status (as they are now required to).
Those records which are complete, however, suggest the adoption of native children by non-native families was pervasive, at least in Northern Ontario and Manitoba. In her March 1999 report Our Way Home: A Report to the Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy on the Repatriation of Aboriginal People Removed by the Child Welfare System, author Janet Budgell notes that in the Kenora region in 1981, “a staggering 85 percent of the children in care were First Nations children, although First Nations people made up only 25 percent of the population”. The number of First Nations children adopted by non-First Nations parents increased fivefold from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Non-First Nations families accounted for 78 per cent of the adoptions of First Nations children.”
Similarly, “One Manitoba community of 800 people lost 150 children to adoption between 1966-1980,” reports Budgell, who prepared the report in conjunction with Native Child and Family Services of Toronto.
Though it is rarely possible to determine precise numbers, the practice of native adoption was widespread enough to be denounced as “cultural genocide” by Edwin C. Kimelman, the presiding judge at the 1985 Manitoba inquiry.
Many native adoptees suffered from not only geographical displacement and cultural confusion but also emotional emptiness, violence, physical and sexual abuse, and drug or alcohol abuse. “My brother was adopted at four years old,” recalls one of the birth relatives of native adoptees interviewed for Our Way Home. “His adoptive parents divorced when he was 12 and they gave him back to the agency like returning merchandise. His life after that was a living hell of abuse, violence and alcoholism. My brother hanged himself at 20 years old.”
Joanne Dallaire is a native adoptee who conducts healing sessions for adoptees at the Anishnawbe Health Centre in Toronto. She too was told by her adoptive family that she wasn’t native. “I, myself was raised by a non-native, and my whole history was denied. Like in school, I was teased. You know how kids can be rather cruel with each other, and I was called a squaw and stuff like that, and when I’d come home, I’d be like crying and stuff, and they’d say, ‘You’re not Indian, you’re French. So, you make sure you tell them you’re French.’ It was years and years of misinformation.”
Dallaire’s attempts to find her birth mother or at least learn the truth of her native status began early. “The first time I started searching was when I was 15, so that was 1966. But it wasn’t until I was an adult and on my own that I really began to search. I didn’t have any proof, either, until 1998. Anishnawbe [native] people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, so you’re Anishnawbe.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, I’m French.’ And I remember one man said to me — I remember profoundly — he looked at me and he said, ‘Someone’s lying to you. You’re Anishnawbe.’
“I remember when I got the phone call from the social services department. One of my first questions was: ‘Is there native in my background?’ So, my mother wanted to know how I’d feel about it if I was, and I said, ‘Very pleased,’ because my whole spirituality and stuff was drawn to native culture. So, I’ve come to find out that I am [First Nations] — to what degree, I don’t know, because my mother is still very evasive about my father. But at least I know part of my heritage is Cree — James Bay Cree.”
Donna Marchand’s own search for her birth mother took 16 years through the Ministry of Community and Social Services and the Adoption Disclosure Record. When government officials finally contacted her in the spring of 1999, they said her mother had died 26 years earlier. “It’s a big area that most people never even thought of,” says Dallaire, “because it goes so quietly and privately. It’s not as out there as the residential schools. And because everything’s secret, you can literally throw your hands in the air and go, ‘Well?’ You quickly run up against one wall and then another, so it takes perseverance, like with Donna having to fight and fight again to get what she wants. Most people get battle-weary and never win.”
WAS IT GENOCIDE?
According to the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, Justice Kimelman’s description of the Sixties Scoop as cultural genocide is accurate. It reads: “Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct people with guarantees against genocide or any other act of violence, including the removal of indigenous children from their families and communities under any pretext.”
So why was the wholesale removal of aboriginal children not considered a crime, or even a wrong, that the Minister of Indian Affairs felt obliged to redress along with the residential school system?
The answer isn’t that complicated, says Kenn Richard, director of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto and the man who commissioned the “Our Way Home” report. “British colonialism has a certain process and formula, and it’s been applied around the world with different populations, often indigenous populations, in different countries that they choose to colonize,” says Richard. “And that is to make people into good little Englishmen. Because the best ally you have is someone just like you. One of the ones you hear most about is obviously the residential schools, and residential schools have gotten considerable media attention over the past decade or so. And so it should, because it had a dramatic impact that we’re still feeling today. But child welfare to a large extent picked up where residential schools left off.”
“The lesser-known story is the child welfare story and its assimilationist program. And you have to remember that none of this was written down as policy: ‘We’ll assimilate Aboriginal kids openly through the residential schools. And after we close the residential schools, we’ll quietly pick it up with child welfare.’ It was never written down. But it was an organic process, part of the colonial process in general.”
In 1985, Justice Edwin Kimelman released a highly critical review of Aboriginal child apprehension entitled No Quiet Place: Review Committee on Indian and Métis Adoptions and Placements. In this report, popularly known as The Kimelman Report, Kimelman and his committee, after holding hearings and listening to oral testimony, made 109 recommendations for policy change. Kimelman concluded that “cultural genocide has taken place in a systematic, routine manner.” He was particularly appalled at the tendency to have Aboriginal children from Canada adopted out to American families, calling it a policy of “wholesale exportation.” Kimelman finished his report by expressing his thoughts on his findings:
“An abysmal lack of sensitivity to children and families was revealed. Families approached agencies for help and found that what was described as being in the child’s ‘best interest’ resulted in their families being torn asunder and siblings separated. Social workers grappled with cultural patterns far different than their own with no preparation and no opportunity to gain understanding.”
Child apprehension became viewed as successor to the residential school system and as a new form of “cultural genocide.” Under article 2(e) of the U.N. Convention on Genocide (1948), “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” constitutes genocide when the intent is to destroy a culture.”
During the 1980s, the accumulation of the Kimelman report, the Johnston report, and resolutions by First Nations bands led provinces to amend their adoption laws to prioritize prospective adoption placements as follows: first, within the extended family of the child; second, by another Aboriginal family; third, by a non-Aboriginal family.
In 1990, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) created the First Nations Child and Family Services program (FNCFS), which transferred administration of child and family services from the province or territory to the local band. Under the program, bands administer these services according to provincial or territorial legislation and child welfare standards, and INAC helps fund the bands’ child and family welfare agencies. Bands have increasingly taken control over their own child protection services. These services have also undergone some reform, such as expanding resources for single parents and establishing juvenile probation services. A Métis Child-Family Services program based in Edmonton is another example of an organization which incorporates traditional values into its adoptive family assessments. In many provinces and territories across Canada, a child is now entitled to know its background, and cultural appropriateness is considered in the assessment and screening of potential caregivers.
What is the situation today?
Sadly, the involvement of the child welfare system is no less prolific in the current era…the “Sixties Scoop” has merely evolved into the “Millennium Scoop.”