Adopted in the Sixties Scoop, she's spent 20 years reconnecting with her home community
Through a repatriation program, Rolanda Murphy found she had a sister in U.S.
Rolanda Murphy comes back from her bedroom wearing an orange "every child matters" T-shirt and a traditional Indigenous skirt.
The skirt has been tailored to fit her small frame. It's red, with a beautiful flower print and a ribbon trim.
"I got the skirt for my 50th birthday last year. It's my most prized possession outside of my white eagle feather," she says before going to retrieve the feather.
"This is it. This is the white eagle feather," she says, emotions weighing heavy in her voice. "It was given to me by my birth community.… I love it! This is all a part of me, of who I am."
For the last 20 years, Murphy has been working to reconnect with her Anishinaabe roots. Originally, Rolanda was from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. But in June 1973, she was put into foster care. By the time she was three years old, she was adopted and came to Montreal's South Shore.
I ask Rolanda what it was like to be a Sixties Scoop kid. Her voice quiets.
"I'm one of the lucky ones."
The Sixties Scoop refers to a set of policies from the 1960s to the 1980s where Canada's social services programs took Indigenous children away from their families for adoption by non-Indigenous families. Many children were forcibly taken from their traditional homes — losing a connection to their language, culture and identity. Some endured physical or sexual abuse.
As one of those lucky ones, she feels "blessed" to have been in the care of her adoptive family in Châteauguay, Que.
"Easily we could've become a statistic if we grew up on our reserve," she says.
Sagkeeng, about 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, is the home community of several missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, including Tina Fontaine.
'The bond between sisters is unbreakable'
"I always knew I was native, or a Canadian Indian that the government labelled us at that time," she quips. And she remembers social services at one point mistakenly identifying her as Cree.
But her foster parents had told her she was from Manitoba, and in 2001 she found a repatriation program that helps reconnect children from southern Manitoba with their families.
"I told the program I would be open to find relatives, however I don't think you're gonna find anybody," she says. "It's only just me!"
But it turned out that she did have an older sister, Kati, who was adopted in the United States.
"From the first time we saw each other, we had a strong connection," Murphy says.
Rolanda communicates online with her sister every day. "Kati's home-care centre bought her an iPad, so we could connect," she says.
"The bond between sisters is unbreakable."
Kati has been to Sagkeeng First Nation only once since she was repatriated, but Rolanda hopes to bring her back this year, made easier now that Kati has her status card.
I look over to see Rolanda's husband, Gordon, kneading dough for morning bread. "This area is my workspace," Gordon says with authority but with a laugh underneath his breath.
"I do all the cooking here. Rolanda does all the sampling."
Their home in Châteauguay is adorned with all their fond memories and trinkets. Pictures and collectable decorative spoons show the life they've lived together.
"Gordon has been there from the beginning on my journey," Murphy says. "He is my absolute rock."
Murphy went back to Sagkeeng in 2009, for a week of powwows and other cultural events called Treaty Days.
"I went to reconnect to my culture, my traditions, but mostly the people, because that's the heart of any nation," she says.
One meeting she fondly remembers was with the community's former chief, Donovan Fontaine, who was impressed by the work she had done to reconnect with her roots
He gave Murphy the white eagle feather during the closing presentation of the Treaty Days celebration. It was more than just a parting gift.
"Rolanda was connecting back to her family, her community.… The gift of the white eagle feather provided healing for her," Fontaine told me.
"With all their identity that was stripped from Sixties Scoop kids, the feather was a way for Rolanda to reconnect."
Murphy now spends her time mentoring cadets who are part of the Royal Montreal Regiment in Westmount, Que. She is a captain with the group.
"I work on making better citizens for Canada, helping them build their leadership skills, give them opportunities to help them work in their community," she says.
"The Creator put me in a place to help. I like going full speed — I always want to learn."