Sixties Scoop survivors reflect on lives 'never to be the same'
An estimated 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families between the '50s and '80s
In 1980, Mary Longman was about to drive away in a silver '64 Chrysler Valiant she had just bought when she paused to ask the people selling her their vehicle a question.
"Do you know any Longmans?"
Longman, 16 at the time, had not seen her family for 11 years.
The sellers were Indigenous and Longman was on the search for anyone who might have answers.
As it turns out, they did know some Longmans. A couple living across the street had the same last name.
A woman from the home across the street came outside holding an apple pie: "Young Mary, is that you? We've been looking for you forever."
The woman Longman met that fall day in Regina was her aunt.
Longman, who is now 53, was one of an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children who were taken from their homes and placed with mostly non-Indigenous parents between the '50s and '80s, and in what became known as the Sixties Scoop.
Many haven't been able to reconnect with their families, but Longman — originally from George Gordon First Nation — lucked out.
She had a big family reunion the week after she saw her aunt.
"It was meant to be," Longman said.
"It was like I never left. My mom said 'Hi, my girl,' gave me a big hug and the rest is history."
Although she was able to be with her family again, her experience in foster care stayed with her.
Longman was constantly taking care of her foster siblings — sometimes as many as 13 at a time — and doing house chores.
"I was hanging out clothes in 40-below weather before I went to school in the morning just because the foster father liked the fresh scent," Longman said.
"I'd have to take them off the line after school. They'd be rock hard, frozen, and I'd have to rehang them in the basement so that they'd thaw."
'Never really had a childhood'
Longman said she also had to clean the sinks and toilets with a toothbrush.
"I never really had a childhood," Longman said. "I was a brown Cinderella for a white family."
Longman later exposed what was going on behind the closed doors of her foster homes through art and dedicated one of her shows in 1988 to the Sixties Scoop.
She has continued to call for accountability, and testified at the national Sixties Scoop hearings last week in Saskatoon.
After the two-day hearing, a federal judge approved an $875-million settlement for those affected by the Sixties Scoop, which includes $750 million for the survivors, $50 million for an Indigenous healing foundation and $75 million for legal fees.
Eligible survivors will receive between $25,000 and $50,000 each.
During her testimony, Longman asked the federal court to consider foster-care abuse as part of compensation, but it didn't become part of the approved settlement.
"If you're sincere about reconciliation with Indigenous people, then do the right thing," Longman said.
"The abuse and the exploitation for labour are the main reasons people wanted to bring this to the courts."
The settlement was meant to compensate for loss of culture; survivors can pursue separate legal action for mistreatment.
Strength found in black and white photo
While many of children caught up in the Sixties Scoop faced a similar experience of being wrenched from their homes and families, not all have been as lucky as Longman, able to reconnect with her past.
The only living relative that survivor Maggie-Blue Waters, 60, was able to reunite with since she was taken away from her family in Montreal Lake Cree Nation was her great-aunt.
She still keeps a black and white photo of her hugging a goat.
Waters brought it to the hearings.
"This picture, to me, is everything because I see the love in her face for that baby goat and I feel if my family could love an animal this much, then their love for us and life and Earth were incredible," Waters said.
"This gives me the strength and the energy to keep going."
Waters was removed from her home in the spring of 1962 after her family was called to a meeting.
Her grandparents were taking care of her and her siblings while their parents worked.
Waters said she remembers being pulled away from her grandparents and shoved into a blue car with her siblings and cousins.
"When the door closed on the car, I knew it was wrong," Waters said. "My life was never to be the same.... I would never feel that love and safety again."
'A welcome home'
Waters, the eldest of the children in the vehicle, pushed her face against the backseat window for the entire ride.
"My belief at that time: if I watched out the window, I would remember where they were taking us and I would take everybody home that night," Waters said.
"That was my plan at five years old."
She was too young to remember the name of her community, and it would take Waters 29 years to return.
She only found out how to get back after the federal government delivered a status treaty card and a $700 cheque that her grandmother left for her from their family estate before she died.
Waters used the money to take a train from Vancouver back to where her family owned a small farm and raised chicken and horses in northern Saskatchewan.
It was early spring when she arrived.
Ice still covered the lake. As she stood by the water, a warm wind enveloped her.
"It came right around my body," Waters said. "It was just like a welcome home."
Waters said she later found out she was standing in the actual location of her grandparent's log cabin.
That was the closest she got to meeting them again.
She later found out her grandfather and dad had died, and her grandmother passed away nine months before she returned.
She said her mother is considered one of the missing and murdered.
Waters channeled that experience to became a lead plaintiff for the national Sixties Scoop settlement.
"I feel that it gives us the ability to put our anger and our anxiety in a different place," Waters said.
"We can reclaim our dismantled identities. Our lost cultures. Our lost languages."
Waters was adopted by a family who lived on a dairy farm hundreds of kilometres away from the rocks and lakes of the north.
Like Longman, she was made to do chores. She became anemic from the processed food she was given.
"The food had no colour," Waters said. "It appeared to be grey or white."
'Validation' in a tin box
Waters said her adoptive mother showed her compassion in her late teens, but it was too late.
"I was told that my family were heathens," Waters said. "I was told they were living a wrong life and that I needed to be taken from them."
She left her adoptive family the day she graduated high school.
Along with the photograph of her great-aunt, she also carries around a silver tin box. Inside is a faded white dress with pink, green and red beads.
She wore the gown at the age of five for her adoption photo, which was plastered in newspaper and TV advertisements.
Today it's a reminder of all she's survived.
"I need to know that I was this little girl," Waters said.
It's "a tangible validation that, yes, that day did take place," she said. "I did have my picture taken. It was put in a newspaper.... There may be a day that I don't want to look at it anymore, but at this time I find it helpful. I find it healing."
Mixed views on settlement
The path forward to find closure among survivors is mixed. Some want to see the national settlement appealed.
Survivors only got three minutes to state their objections to the federal court, and some were cut off in tears.
"It is unacceptable," Longman said.
"It [the settlement] needs to be redrafted by an Indigenous committee made up by Indigenous Sixties Scoop experts, survivors, Indigenous and federal lawyers and a mental-health practioner."
For others, the settlement's approval represents a culmination of decades of work.
They want to put the process behind them and move on.
"This means clarity," Waters said. "I don't have have to look over my shoulder anymore, I can look foward."