Reunion stories: Indigenous adoptees find family, and themselves, in the N.W.T.
'I always knew that I was a native person... but I had no idea what that meant'
For Nadine Delorme-Simon, stepping off the plane in the N.W.T. for the first time in her adult life was unforgettable.
"It was like a whoosh," says Delorme-Simon. "It felt almost like the wind you get from a fire come up from my feet, and then the tears were just pouring down my face."
Delorme-Simon grew up in Toronto, the adopted daughter of a well-educated, loving, Italian couple.
It wasn't until high school — when she met an Aboriginal person for the first time — that she started thinking about searching for her roots.
In 2011 Delorme-Simon gained access to her original birth registry, and learned her birth mother was from the tiny community of Fort Resolution, N.W.T.
Three years later, the pull to culture and family was so strong she travelled 3,000 kilometres to meet the cousins, aunties and uncles she'd spent more than 20 years wondering about.
A common story
Stories of family and cultural separation are all too common across the North.
Starting in 1880, and until as recently as the late 1990s, roughly 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and communities to attend residential schools.
Between the 1960s and 1985, the federal government estimates that just over 11,000 Indigenous children were adopted into non-Indigenous homes across Canada during what became known as the '60s Scoop.
Today, nearly half of young people in foster care across Canada are Indigenous. In the three Northern territories, that number is even higher.
But many of the children who grew up disconnected from their culture and their families are now trying to reconnect — and the lengths some people have gone are truly incredible.
From Toronto to Fort Resolution
Delorme-Simon decided to pack up her life and make Fort Resolution her home shortly after her first visit.
In 2015, she married the community's former mayor. With her parents unable to travel, a second cousin, Eva Villeneuve, gave her away.
The move involved some major sacrifices.
Neither of her children moved with her, although she hopes one day they will be allowed to join her in the North.
Delorme-Simon is also still searching for one more very important family member — her biological mother -— and she's not giving up hope.
"I have a wonderful partner and some wonderful family members — biological and adopted — who have made me strong enough to withstand a lot of the wondering."
Shannon Clarke, like Delorme-Simon, spent much of her childhood wondering about the biological family she'd never met.
Clarke, who was born in 1976 in Inuvik, always knew she was adopted. At 14, she discovered that she was going to the same Inuvik high school as her sister, Liz Gordon.
An emotional reunion — organized by a mutual friend — brought the two young women together as sisters for the first time.
Twenty-six years later, Clarke and Gordon have remained as close as ever — attending bingo and meeting for weekly lunch dates in Inuvik.
But both women also had to come to terms with being raised apart.
"I would have liked to have lived a more traditional life," says Clarke. "It's something a lot of people have up here, is living on the land, and all that."
"I grew up struggling to have stuff, and it seemed that she had everything," says Gordon of meeting Clarke's adoptive family.
"I was jealous I guess, wishing I could have been there because I struggled a lot when I was young, dealing with alcoholism myself and growing up in an alcoholic home."
Have you seen my father?
Gordon's experience motivated her to seek out another family member — her biological father.
"I'd never met my father, but I knew his name, and I'd heard he was living in Red Deer, Alta."
A 26-year-old Gordon decided to place an ad in the local paper, and to her surprise, she got a response.
"I get a phone call and it was one of my uncles, and I was so happy, I was crying even."
Two days later Gordon received a phone call from her father, and they made plans to meet in Red Deer.
"I went down there after Christmas, and they kept the Christmas tree up for me, and there were presents under the tree for me, and I met my grandma and my uncles," says Gordon.
"I cried, and I cried, and I cried I was so happy that I'd found my dad."
A way forward
Peyton Straker also got a happy ending.
After spending the majority of her life disconnected from her Ojibwa culture, the 26-year-old now teaches young students the traditional skills she grew up without.
A member of the Keeseekoose First Nation, in Kamsack, Sask., she was adopted into a Yellowknife family as a baby.
"I always knew that I was a native person, and I knew that was part of my identity, but I had no idea what that meant."
As a teenager, she searched out her birth father and brother on Facebook. A few months later, she flew to Saskatoon to meet them for the first time.
"I knocked on my brother's door, and he just stood at the top of the stairs, and then we just hugged for about 15 minutes."
Straker characterizes the years that followed as an emotional journey.
She'd finally connected to her Indigenous heritage, but the connections she'd made were nearly 2,000 kilometres from the territory she called home.
She sought help at Dechinta, the N.W.T. bush university outside of Yellowknife.
'[The] elders or professors were like, 'Everyone just needs to go out on the land,' and I was like, 'How?'
"'Do you knock on someone's door? Do you show up on somebody's doorstep? Because I don't know any native people. The only native people are in this camp right now, and this is it for me.'"
Straker says she finally started to feel like she'd found a group of people she could connect with and learn from a couple of years ago.
In 2013 she started dating her current partner, a hunter and guide from Lutsel K'e, N.W.T.
That brought her into a family "that is still so traditional, and has meat on their floor at any given time, or a Ski-Doo out front."
It's a change that has brought her a lot of joy, and that her adoptive family is also getting used to.
"I think they see how happy it makes me and how validating it is for me."
Straker is now an Indigenous student advocacy worker at Mildred Hall School in Yellowknife.
"It feels really good to be able to share what other people have taught me, and I think that's really the goal."