From Seine River First Nation to The Annex: A Sixties Scoop survivor's journey to Toronto

Melanie Montour was taken from her parents' home in 1970. Aboriginal people gathered in Toronto on Tuesday to speak out against the Sixties Scoop in Ontario, a period of nearly 20 years starting in the 1960s in which Aboriginal children were taken from their homes.

'Uprooted' and 'displaced', Melanie Montour connects with her culture through art

Melanie Montour was taken from her parents' home in 1970 as part of the Sixties Scoop. (Trevor Dunn)

When Melanie Montour was finally reunited with her mother, they no longer spoke the same language.

It was 20 years after Montour was taken from her parent's home as part of the Sixties Sweep.

Montour was just a year old when she says the Fort Frances Children's Aid Society took her from her home on the Seine River First Nation, about 300 kilometres west of Thunder Bay. That was in 1970.

"I remember being in a crib and crying. I was cold and wet and a worker came and picked me up and took me out. She was talking nice, but I didn't understand anything. And that was the last time I remember seeing my mom," Montour, 47, said in an interview with CBC News.

Melanie Montour now lives in Toronto. She was taken from her reserve as a baby in 1970 as part of the Sixties Scoop. (CBC)

Two decades later, she saw her mother again. But after moving through several foster homes and being adopted by a family on the other side of the province, Montour spoke no Ojibwe and her mother no English.

"We talked through an interpreter."

Montour told her story to CBC News on the same day a hearing on a class-action lawsuit representing other Sixties Scoop survivors unfolded in a downtown Toronto courtroom. The hearing adjourned Tuesday and will resume on Dec. 1. 

The lawsuit turns on a federal-provincial arrangement, in which Ontario child welfare services placed as many as 16,000 Aboriginal children with non-Native families from 1965 to 1984.

Their unproven claim alleges the children suffered a devastating loss of cultural identity that Canada negligently failed to protect. They want $1.3 billion in various damages, or about $85,000 for each affected person.  

Montour, who is not currently part of the Sixties Scoop lawsuit, says she was lucky to have met her biological parents; a result of hard research by her father.

"My dad was working with family services in Fort Frances and somehow he accessed my records. He wasn't supposed to, but he did. He accessed all of the Montours in the database for the library. That was in the 90s and he said that he called about half of the list, around 1,800 Montour's in Canada, and he called until he got me on the phone."

By that time Montour was settled in Six Nations, near Brantford, Ont., where she was adopted. While she was happy to hear from her family, she says the reunion was difficult.

"They expected me to call them mom and dad. It was overwhelming really. I didn't think I had anyone up until that point. I never really thought about it. It was like my family was from Six Nations. And they wanted me to leave Six Nations and come live with them. Just totally integrate back with them. But it was pretty much out of the question at that point because I was raising a family of my own."

Melanie Montour speaking with CBC reporter Trevor Dunn (CBC)

Montour now calls Toronto home, although the idea of home is difficult concept for her.

"I'm kind of uprooted, displaced. I'm not close with my family. Either family," she said.

Instead, she says she grounds herself with her artwork. Montour makes aboriginal crafts, jewellry and moccasins, often selling it on the sidewalk in The Annex.

"I feel connected with my culture. That's what keeps me grounded. I'm an artist. I do a lot of painting and carving and I sell my work on the street. That's where it's comfortable for me."

Montour has struggled at times. Feeling detached from her home and from her family, she says she often turned to alcohol.

But Montour says that while many of the children taken during the Sixties Sweep lost touch with their culture and traditions, she's been able to hold on to hers — something she sees as a victory.

"I really felt disconnected for a few years at a time, then I would come back, and I learned my arts and crafts through different people. Self taught. And it was something I felt connected to."