When Rose Fabien learned in a phone call with a doctor that she had a granddaughter, she raced to the hospital in Hay River in the Northwest Territories.
It’s January 1969, and the family is part of the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation, a nation within the Chipewyan people of the northern prairie provinces and the Northwest Territories. Fabien’s daughter was underage at the time, and she planned on taking her granddaughter, now named Tricia Bates, under her care.
“By the time my grandmother had driven from Fort Resolution to Hay River, to the hospital, to try and get me and say ‘I want my granddaughter; where is she?’ they said ‘sorry, she’s already gone,'” said Bates, who now lives in Penticton. “She searched high and low through Hay River and through Pine Point and they couldn’t find me.
“All my life I believed that I was not wanted.”
The facts surrounding Bates’s birth and adoption are shrouded in mystery. Most of her information comes from her biological sister, who heard it from their grandmother.
“Everybody has their own story in their own mind, right? Think it’s two young people that made a mistake,” Bates said. “I kind of wondered about it because my birth mother was underage when she had me. And I know from a lot of the stories and stuff that the government has just taken the babies away from unwed mothers.”
Bates only got confirmation in April this year, at 49 years old, that she had been part of the ’60s Scoop, a damaging nationwide displacement of upwards of 20,000 Indigenous children from their homes to those of middle-class white families through the child welfare system. The practice spanned from the 1950s into the 1980s and is widely criticized as an act of cultural genocide.
Bates has never known with certainty who her biological father was. Her mother has never wanted to talk about it, but to give shifting, unreliable stories, often telling her she was unwanted rather than taken by the government.
Only Bates’s sisters stayed with the family, one raised by her grandmother and the other by her mother. Bates and her brother were both taken by the government.
“When you’re adopted, it doesn’t matter if your family loves you, beats you, treats you like a queen, there’s still that — you know you don’t belong. It’s always in the back of your mind: You do not belong,” Bates said.
Raised by a middle-class, white family, Bates was afforded material comforts that her sister didn’t have growing up in the family.
“Back in that time, they didn’t have running water. They didn’t have a lot of things. It was very, very scary, I would say, compared to what I knew. My parents lived in a home where the heat was there, there wasn’t wind blowing through the walls. That would be luxury compared to the way my sister was raised. But my sister was raised with love and tradition,” Bates said.
Which begs the question: how do you balance that trade-off? How do you weigh feeling loved and accepted and knowing where and whom you come from against having material comforts such as running water and a heated home?
“You can’t,” Bates said.
She had material comforts, but spoke of never feeling comfortable, being “nobody’s child.”
As a teenager, Bates often didn’t get along with her adopted mother, which added to the struggle with her already strained mental health. When she was 17, memories of sexual abuse from a babysitter when she was just four years old resurfaced.
Bates said she got into “bad, bad physical relationships” and attempted suicide three times in her life as a result of everything she had been through.
But despite feeling unwanted by her own family, it was not true — at least with her grandparents.
“My grandmother did want me. My grandmother and my grandfather did not like the fact that one of theirs was out there.”
However, it would take decades for that to become clear to Bates. She only got to know her biological family by happenstance after moving to Penticton, when her father suggested she talk to his coworker’s wife, also from the Northwest Territories.
“I finally went and I did go and speak with this lady, and she took one look at me, goes ‘yup, I know who you belong to,'” and that woman put Bates in touch with her family.
In her 20s at the time, Bates said she was “really not ready to accept a lot of that, yet.” But gradually, she began meeting her biological family, speaking to her grandmother and an uncle on the phone at first. An aunt travelling through Kamloops, where Bates was later living, became Bates’s first face-to-face interaction with biological family.
“Being able to hold somebody’s hand that you’re truly blood-related to, and to happen to have an automatic connection with that person is really mind blowing. It is.”
Submitted image’ alt=’Tricia Bates’s family had shirts made with the word “Eschia” on them, the Chipewyan word for “take it easy,” and somewhat of a family saying. Bates hopes to learn to speak Chipewyan, the language of her biological family in the Northwest Territories. Submitted image’ />
Submitted image’ alt=’Tricia Bates’s family had shirts made with the word “Eschia” on them, the Chipewyan word for “take it easy,” and somewhat of a family saying. Bates hopes to learn to speak Chipewyan, the language of her biological family in the Northwest Territories.
Submitted image’ />
|Tricia Bates’s family had shirts made with the word “Eschia” on them, the Chipewyan word for “take it easy,” and somewhat of a family saying. Bates hopes to learn to speak Chipewyan, the language of her biological family in the Northwest Territories.
Bates met her biological mother when she travelled from the North to Vancouver, and a year later she met her sister who came down to Merritt. That was shortly followed by somewhat more of a grand entrance into the family, when an aunt got married in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1992.
“I flew up to Whitehorse and got to meet the majority of my family then. I’ve got nine aunts and uncles, and I only missed a couple there. It was very overwhelming to meet so many people all at once,” she said. “That was pretty good.”
The following year, Bates went back to live with her sister in Whitehorse for the summer of 1993.
She got to meet her grandmother twice, finally getting to know the woman who sought to keep her with her family, “and I could tell that she truly loved me.”
“I was in awe. Beautiful woman — very loving, very kind. Gentle. And so much information. We went on a walk when we were at this one picnic area at my aunt’s present opening, and we were just walking through the trails and a little picnic area, and she’s pointing out flowers and herbs and stuff like that, and she’s just ‘we use this to make a tea. We dry the herbs to do this. We use this kind of wood here to smoke hides.'”
Last summer, Bates was finally able to go back up to the Northwest Territories, the place of her birth, for the first time since her family moved away while she was growing up.
As she got to meet her real family and has gotten to know her roots, Bates has had her work cut out for her to build up her self-esteem after years of feeling unwanted.
“I’ve done lots of work, lots of different workshops, self-help, energy healing, counsellors,” she said. “Sometimes I get really triggered with situations, but all-in-all we’re all here on a different healing journey, right?”
In fact, Bates said she considers herself “one of the lucky ones.” She still has family that she’s been able to reconnect with. And reconnecting with her culture, too, is playing a role in her healing.
With a Chipewyan dictionary at her desk and another book documenting the culture and history, she’s committed to healing the decades of feeling lost by fusing a connection with her ancestry.
She’s far from alone in that journey — she noted the effects of the ’60s Scoop and residential schools not only on survivors of those practices, but of the generations that succeed them. But Bates said it’s frustrating to see denial and downplaying in the public dialogue surrounding residential schools and the ’60s Scoop, often suggesting Indigenous Peoples should “get over it.”
“The healing — we’re talking generations from now before anything’s ever really going to be resolved.”
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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter
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