A Sixties Scoop survivor who returned to Canada for the first time after more than five decades in New Zealand says it's been "absolutely amazing" to reconnect with his long-lost culture and community as he tries to find his family.
Over the past week, Brent Mitchell has taken part in ceremonies and cultural events around Ottawa as he meets other Indigenous people who were taken from their families as children and placed with non-Indigenous families.
"I've been involved with some ceremony here, and it's really emotional," said Mitchell, visiting a weekly gathering for elders at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre with his partner Yolanda Julies.
"I want more. Even though I don't understand the significance, it's special to me. And I'll be taking home to my children some of that."
Born in Winnipeg, Mitchell was apprehended by child welfare authorities when he was one, then in 1963 sent to live with a foster family in New Zealand when he was five years old. He calls his upbringing there a "nightmare" because of abuse he suffered.
But he always hoped to one day return to Canada, and learn more about his Indigenous background, of which he knew very little. That opportunity finally came when the Legacy of Hope Foundation brought him here last week to take part in a national project to raise awareness of the Sixties Scoop.
"I'd given up on coming here," he said. "And I'm here, I'm living it, I'm seeing the culture. I'm alive."
The Legacy of Hope Foundation invited 12 Sixties Scoop survivors altogether to Ottawa to offer testimonials that will be part of a comprehensive travelling exhibition similar to another project on residential schools.
Mitchell met the others in an opening ceremony last Friday night, where they presented him with a Métis sash.
"I was floored at the time. I still am, because it means more to me than anything else. This sash is my identity," he said. It wasn't until he saw part of his child welfare file in 1997 that he learned his mother was Métis.
He also learned he has six siblings, all of whom were adopted by different families. He's had no luck locating any of them since he's been here, but other survivors have provided information and resources to help in his search.
"Everything was mixed up, and I didn't know where to start, where to go, what to do," he said. "Now I've got starting points and a whole bunch of new friends over here."
Julies has seen big changes in her partner since they arrived in Ottawa.
"What I've noticed in him is a greater sense of self-confidence, and I think it is because he made connections with his identity and culture, and I think it has given him a new lease on life," she said. "And I've seen him grow from a man with few words to a person that cannot stop talking about the wonderful experience that he had."
Mitchell and Julies will celebrate another major milestone while they're in Canada: They plan to marry Friday evening, with fellow Sixties Scoop survivor Elaine Kicknosway performing the wedding ceremony.
They'll return to New Zealand on Sunday, but they're planning on returning to Canada — specifically to Manitoba, where Mitchell was born — as soon as they can.
In the meantime, Mitchell says he'll continue searching for his lost family members.
"It'll have its ups and downs, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. It's just been amazing."